Photo: Aktiv I via Flickr

It still doesn’t seem real.

It’s been more than four years since Frank Ocean released “Channel Orange,” his critically adored major label debut. Since then, the wait for a follow-up has felt every bit that long, and then some.

As anticipation heightened, so did the drama and anxiety — there werephony release dates, promising snippets of new music and even a mysterious, black and white live stream of a vague, warehouse workspace. Every move Ocean made felt so large, as fans tried to read into every little detail, speculating, hoping and doubting all at once as more and more time passed by.

That all changed last Thursday night, when the enigmatic singer revealed “Endless,” a full-length visual album featuring totally new music and some strange — yet somehow incredibly artful — woodworking. Then, less than two days later, fans received “Nikes,” a music video for yet another new track.

Things were happening so fast.

Finally, Ocean topped off the weekend with “Blonde,” a new record that seemed to be the real album, the one fans had waited so long for. The 17-song LP, released exclusively on Apple Music Aug. 20, finds the Los Angeles-based artist trying to reconcile the effects of his fans’ monstrous expectations with his goals as a creator, taking the hype head-on while also shifting his focus as an artist.

Musically, the album quickly demonstrates just how much Ocean’s tastes have changed in the last four years. Ballads reign supreme on “Blonde,” and most tracks find the R&B singer crooning over minimal, low-tempo instrumentation with little to no backbeat. Drums are notably absent at many points throughout the record, as Ocean seems more concerned with emphasizing his excellent voice rather than building beats to a climax.

While the smooth, catchy drum beats of “Channel Orange” songs such as “Lost” and “Crack Rock” are nowhere to be found on “Blonde,” tracks such as “Ivy” and “Skyline To” find ways to escalate on their own.

Despite such a simple musical focus, the record’s style differs wildly from song to song. Ocean moves listeners through an electronic anthem on “Nights,” jazz guitar-fueled soul on “Self Control” and futuristic, dream pop on “White Ferrari.”

“Meant it sincere back then, we had time to kill back then. You ain’t a kid no more, we’ll never be those kids again. It’s not the same.”

-Frank Ocean on “Ivy” 

Ocean’s lyrical intentions have clearly developed as well, with “Channel Orange’s” themes of love, lust and wealth being traded in for a more introspective, autobiographical tone. On “Blonde,” the New Orleans-raised musician dwells on his past often, and embraces loneliness and longing as primary subjects.

No track displays this better than “Solo,” in which Ocean beautifully toys with the duality of being “solo” as well as feeling “so low.” He somberly searches for companionship, singing, “I brought trees to blow through, but it’s just me and no you. Stayed up ’til my phone died, smoking big, rolling solo.”

That being said, Ocean understands his rather particular situation, and seems aware that taking himself too seriously after a four year hiatus would leave fans feeling looked down on. As a result, humor often steps in to lighten the album’s mood, providing a light break from its heavier moments.

On “Nikes,” the record’s first song, Ocean describes women that are “Looking for a check” and “Need a ring like Carmelo (Anthony),” comparing sports with a person’s need for financial security. The track comes across as both humorous and perceptive, and ultimately is one of the “Blonde’s” strongest songs.

Additionally, a much-welcomed appearance by Outkast member and Atlanta hip-hop legend Andre 3000 also serves to break up the album’s bleak tone. Appearing — quite fittingly — by himself without Ocean’s accompaniment on the interlude track “Solo (Reprise),” the famously enigmatic rapper is fast and harsh in his delivery, a welcomed pause in between a slew of slower songs.

Overall, “Blonde” doesn’t live up to the legend of its predecessor, but Ocean still manages to quell the concerns of a sophomore slump, which were likely only multiplied as the album faced so many delays and false releases. He gives his fans just enough to run with, while also making it evident that the sounds that made “Channel Orange” so popular are no longer in his line of sight. Frank Ocean is growing and changing and his next work may look even less like “Blonde” or “Endless.” In the meantime, however, both Ocean and his fans are just happy an album, especially one this emotional, beautiful and innovative, has finally arrived — it’s been long enough after all.

Originally published in The Red & Black