‘Don’t Try to Be Someone Else’: On Voicemails and a Mother’s Love on Frank Ocean’s ‘Blonde’
The voicemail interlude on 'Blonde' is a snapshot of a mom being a mom, which carries a special importance
The album skit is supposed to be over. What was once an essential hallmark of hip-hop and R&B LPs is now a disposable flourish; WAVs and MP3s don’t have the physicality of vinyls and cassettes, so now you can always just skip the interludes, no problem. In just the past decade, Kanye West’s skits have gone from overused stopgaps to afterthoughts (Max B’s phone message couldn’t have been part of the original Life of Pablo plans); even De La Soul — who popularized the concept on 1989’s skit-stuffed 3 Feet High and Rising — have been distancing themselves from interstitial segments since 1993’s Buhloone Mindstate.
Yet, the modern album is still sprinkled with them — even the clichéd voicemail skit, which dates back to before Common dropped the Sense. If you have a heart (and a subscription to Apple Music), chances are that you heard another new one over the weekend. Early into Frank Ocean’s stunning Blonde, Rosie Watson — the mother of Ocean’s “good friend Jonathan” — gives some very-motherly advice via a minute-long message, cautioning against the typical vices (weed, alcohol, the temptation to fit in). True, it’s delivered over a melody that’s so beautifully childlike it sounds like the theme song to some forgotten PBS Kids show. But still, it’s basically just audio of a mom being a mom.
“Do not smoke marijuana, do not consume alcohol, do not get in the car with someone who is inebriated,” Watson says, doling out guidance she’s undoubtedly relayed to her sons hundreds of times. “This is mom, call me, bye.”
The warm moment seems small in scale, but, at this point, nothing about this record is small — this is a new Frank Ocean album we’re talking about. After putting out a modern classic (2012’s channel ORANGE), the crooner born Christopher Edwin Breaux spent the next four years more or less as a recluse, whetting appetites with phantom release dates. And to offset the distant myth that has become Frank’s arc, we have a mother, acting as a familial (and familiar) presence, imbuing Blonde with even more intimacy. Not that Frank needs much help there; his songwriting abilities are singular. The 28-year-old’s work portrays someone who’s painfully aware of the heartbreak that comes with simply being human, and the inevitability of the hedgehog’s dilemma. But in the same breath, he’ll sing of forever as if it’s a palpable thing, within hands’ reach.
A mother’s voicemail might read like an aside, especially on an Event Album like Blonde. But parental voicemails and phone calls are a regular presence on some of the decade’s most beloved albums. On his breakthrough 2013 mixtape Acid Rap, Chance the Rapper’s father tells him how proud he is during a heartrending phone call that appears late into the record. Kendrick Lamar’s mother appears throughout 2012’s good kid, m.A.A.d city via voicemail, and on the album’s denouement, she tells the young star that he has to do right by the kids who still dwell on the deadly Compton streets he escaped.
On one hand, hosting parents on albums that are both career and cultural touchstones offers the audience a personal touch, a human element. The phone calls are reminders that before these artists’ stories became ours, they continued the hopes of the generation before them. Momma Lamar/Papa Chance’s loving sentiments also add a sense of urgency. Yes, simple advice and affirming praise feel like minor joys; but they’re often one of a parent’s only navigational tools for sending a young African-American man out into the world’s madness. Not doing drugs, abstaining from alcohol — those are things we can control. Heartbreak, police brutality, and the damaging construct of black masculinity — those are things a parent’s love can’t defend against.
I hear Jonathan’s mother and I think of my own. She’s lived in America for decades, through the civil-rights movement and New York’s crippling crack epidemic. She knows the limitations of parental love, just as she knows the random cruelties of the universe. It’s a perspective that fits into Ocean’s thesis: Find the power to love within the finite nature of life, despite how naive it may seem to do so.
Before Blonde’s fantasies set in, the contemplative opener, “Nikes,” surveils through a sober lens: “RIP Trayvon,” Ocean croons in an alien voice. “That nigga look just like me.” After witnessing Hurricane Katrina firsthand while living in New Orleans, Katonya Breaux Riley — Ocean’s mother — is no doubt aware of the dangers her son faces. And she’s constantly reminded of that fact because that same sort of disregard has been going viral since 2005. And yet, Frank Ocean survived to become such a star that social media combusts with nearly every public sighting of him. So you get why she’s especially excited as thousands exalt, commiserate, and reminisce over her son’s work. She’s all of our mothers.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated that the voice on “Be Yourself” was Ocean’s mother Katonya Breaux Riley. The message comes from Rosie Watson, who is the mother of Ocean’s friend, Jonathan. An interview with Watson appears in Ocean’s Boys Don’t Cry zine.