The Ancient Wisdom of Frank Ocean's "Blonde"
The final line of Frank Ocean's Blonde asks, "How far is a light year?"
It's the closing line of "Futura Free," the song's slow-burning final track, which is ostensibly an ode to Ocean's own growth as an artist. But as with all things on Blonde, the line grows more complex the closer you listen.
How far is a light year? Light travels a distance of around 9.4×1012 km in a year. "Futura Free" is 9.4 minutes long. That fact is a tribute to Ocean's exacting preciseness, to the mathematical perfection that underlies the artistic triumph that is Blonde.
This is a formula that the universe itself follows. Beneath the apparent random chaos of nature, are mathematical ratios, we know; peer into the heart of a sunflower or the leaves of an agave plant and you'll see the same spiral shape, reflecting a series of patterns known as a Fibonacci sequence.
There's something equally mathematically precise about Blonde, an album that — on the first or even the twentieth listen — can feel as random and unknowable as the tossing winds of a storm. This is part of what gives the album its cosmic depth, which has kept it infinitely relevant and giving even five years after its release.
Blonde has been written about extensively. An entire episode of the podcast Dissolve was dedicated to picking apart its skeletal, psychedelic songs. In 2019, Pitchfork ranked it the best album of the 2010s. Even so, despite all the analysis, each listen continues to reveal new truths.
The most common reading of Blonde is that it is an album about dualities. This extends to its title, which is spelled Blond on the album cover but Blonde on all streaming platforms. The "e," flickering in and out, is both there and not there.
In that it's reminiscent of a quantum particle.One of the central ideas of quantum physics is that light can behave as both a particle and a wave; in essence, something can be both one thing and another. This is known as the "particle-wave duality," and it shatters the idea that entities must be one thing or the other.
On Blonde, two things can definitely exist at once. "He don't care for me, but he cares for me," Ocean sings in Nikes, the album's opener. Here, love and pain can be the same thing; someone can be both there and not there.
Frank Ocean - Blond - Full Albumwww.youtube.com
We live in a world that constantly divides things into binaries — good and evil, light and dark, man and woman, life and death. But Blonde interrogates these boundaries, lamenting the divisions they create, eventually reaching something like a state of wholeness in its willingness to accept contradictions.
The concept of particle-wave duality is a relatively new scientific revelation, but the idea that contradictory ideas can exist at the same time is frequently found in ancient philosophies. Namely, it appears in Buddhism, particularly in terms of the concept of non-duality.
Non-duality is a difficult concept to explain, and some Buddhist texts theorize that if you understand non-duality you'll have reached enlightenment. There are many different definitions of non-duality, one of which is the idea that there is an infinite consciousness where all dualities do not exist. Understanding the reality of that consciousness as well as the reality of our individual, binary-torn world is understanding non-duality.
If there ever was a non-dual album, it's Blonde, which constantly grapples with contradictions, spinning them into a whole.
The Dualities of (Blonde)
For example, "Nikes" explores the binary between distance and intimacy. It begins with Ocean's voice pitched way up, disguised by filters, immediately creating a distance between the listener and the singer. And yet at the same time he's building this distance, he's also inviting the listener into his most intimate feelings.
On "Ivy," he focuses on the binary between love and hate on "Ivy." "It's okay to hate me now… "Deep down, it's good," he sings, the music radiating euphoric light despite lacking any audible beats or drums.
On "Pink + White," Ocean interrogates another duality: death and life. "If you could die and come back to life / up to air from the swimming pool," he sings, "you'd kneel down to the dry land / Kiss the earth that birthed you / gave you tools just to stay alive / and make it out when the sun is ruined." It's abstract poetry that conjures a vaguely Christlike figure, reborn from the ashes, shambling towards immortality.
"Bitch, I might like immortality," he says at the end. There's that contrast again: the harshness of the word bitch, the cosmic depth of the song's message about immortality. In Blonde, no aspect of existence is restricted or held on too long, and deep philosophical insights sit right beside explicit colloquialisms. Often the colloquialisms are the insights.
On "Solo," Ocean explores the binary between heaven and hell, addressing fluidity with which experience can shift based on the way we perceive it. "It's hell on Earth and the city's on fire / inhale, in hell there's heaven," he sings. "There's a bull and a matador dueling in the sky / inhale, in hell there's heaven."
On "Skyline To," he explores the fluidity of time itself. "Summer's not as long as it used to be / everyday counts like crazy," he sings before the song veers into a hazy instrumental break lit by what sounds like a theremin. The interlude is the sonic embodiment of some intangible mix of nostalgia, lostness, and love that defines so much of life, but that's so difficult to capture.
On "Siegfried," he explores the presence and absence of God. "Speaking of nirvana it was there," Ocean says on Siegfried. He's always finding and losing God, and eventually he lets it go on "Godspeed."
Nights and the Black Hole B Flat
Nowhere is the album more dual than on"Nights," a hallucinatory journey through Ocean's memories. The song alternates between the mystical and banal; depending on what you choose to listen to, you could gather almost anything from the song.
"Did I call you from a seance?" Ocean sings at one point early in the song. "You were from my past life…signals coming in and out." There's that alienation, the sense of infinite distance between Ocean and the other, Ocean and the listener, Ocean and himself.
Halfway between Blonde, right in the center of Nights, there's a shift that is almost guaranteed to give you chills. "All my life / I've been waiting on you all my life," Frank sings at the top of his range. The strings build up to a wild climax, then a frenzied electric guitar comes in, and chaos ensues.
Then suddenly, right at 3:30, the song switches. A new beat enters, smooth and subdued, along with the gentle ping of a new note. That shift occurs right at the album's halfway point, essentially splitting the album in two. That note, located right at the halfway point of the album, is a B flat.
Perhaps it is a coincidence that in 2003, astronomers detected sound waves ringing out of a supermassive black hole at the heart of the Perseus cluster, a collection of galaxies about 300 million light years from Earth. They were able to detect that the black hole's sound waves were vibrating at B-flat, at 57 octaves below what we know as Middle C.
Perhaps it's a coincidence that at cores of black holes are points of infinite density — into which, scientists believe, matter and gas enters and disappears forever. At the heart of a black hole is a point of no return, a transition point, a threshold.
If there are parallel universes, they would be on the other side of that point. ("I think we're tall in another dimension," intones Frank on "White Ferrari." "You think we're small and not worth the mention").
Maybe it's a coincidence that B flat at the center of Ocean's album essentially divides Blonde into two 30-minute halves, the first more youthful and lighter, and the second feeling more mature more removed, darker. (Another review likens the first half of the album to Yang, and the second half to Yin).
Maybe it's reaching to suggest that the B flat in "Nights" signifies the portal between one dimension and the other, the place where one truth meets another opposing truth, the place where both exist together at the same time.
Maybe it's also a coincidence that scientists have found that waves of gas emanating from the center of black holes emanate in the shape a figure eight, which happens to be the symbol of infinity. Maybe it's a coincidence that at the exact still point between two parallel truths is infinity, infinite blackness, an infinite B flat humming out like a cosmic subwoofer.
"What I get out of this is not two isolated half-hour experiences that run parallel to each other," writes Sazi Bongwe in a review of the album. "Rather, the album is an infinite loop that connects these perceptions — and the way Frank manages to intertwine things that are in opposition to one another is what makes the album such an expansive experience."
But maybe none of this is a coincidence. After all, the length of "Futura Free" references the length of a light year. Clearly Ocean was getting at some cosmic themes with Blonde.
Perhaps Ocean is even alluding to the Buddhist idea that only at the still point, in the present moment, in the space between the future and the past, can nirvana be found. That idea is encapsulated perfectly in T. S. Eliot's iconic line from The Four Quartets: "At the still point… there the dance is."
In the dead center of a black hole, you might just find infinity — a place where anything (and everything) both is and isn't at once. Science is still grappling with that idea, but the Buddhists, poets, — and, seemingly, Blonde — understood that a long time ago.
You may or may not find infinity at the heart of a black hole, but you'll definitely find it in Blonde.