Publication: PUSH Magazine
Date: August 2016
With the dust still settling, the devastation of Frank Ocean’s marauding campaign of hate against his admirers is beginning to show. In a triple threat of vindication for his fans, ‘Endless’ was followed by ‘Blonde’ and the ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ zine. But is that atonement for years of neglect and emotional absence? Is all forgiven?
Many have likened him to an abusive lover; complicated, emotional and twisted. Treating those who love him like dirt, but giving them just enough to keep them holding on. “We can change him” his fans say as they tracked down the DIY studio from his ‘art-project’ stream of Apple Music endorsed tedium. Just a few weeks ago, there he was, tinkering away, avoiding their stare. “Why won’t you look at us?” they cried, “Where is it Frank?”, “Why are you doing this?” “We asked for an album, not a morose birdhouse.” They made a diss album, ‘Boys Do Cry’ as a final retort, a desperate plea for our Frank to burst into life and gratify their masochistic commitment. It seemed to fall on deaf ears.
Some were ready to give up and some did. Many looked to Travis Scott to release the gracefully titled ‘Birds In The Trap Sing McKnight’ just so they could get away from it all for a little while. But unable to shoulder the burden, he went and hid behind Zane Lowe at the Beats One studios, without so much as single comforting word. All this, and Frank continued in his absence. Something was coming, but no one would be fooled into thinking it would ever come; they would never get what Frank Ocean owed them.
But what really does he owe them? He never asked them to hang off his every word, analyse his every movement. He was just one of the more complicated spokes in the Odd Future wheel. Channel Orange was eloquent and poetic where his OF contemporaries preferred to lurk in the undertow, and if Tyler and the gang started out as 4Chan, then Frankie was Tumblr. He traversed tragedy identity with grace and aplomb; rarely hiding behind twisted metaphor; rarely pretending to be something he wasn’t.
Unintentionally, he became not just their Bowie, but a manifestation of all of them. They fell in love with a young man they hoped to meet. They feel in love with a young man they wanted to be.
After Channel Orange, Frank withdrew. His autobiographical songs touched more people than he could’ve imagined, carving out a place for him in RnB history with a double-edged sword. He sacrificed a private life for his poetry, like a martyr for a misunderstood generation.
With all this in mind, can we still call Frank abusive? Channel ORANGE was not a call to follow to his listeners, it was a reclamation of his best work. An album that gave context and insight to the stunning songs he’d written for Beyonce, Kanye and John Legend among others. In 2012, Ocean became not only an innovative and interesting artist, but a necessary one that united modern conceptions of soul with antiquated RnB conceit. A second album was eagerly awaited pretty much straight away, and the hype train just seemed to gather pace as no one else managed to fill the Frank shaped-hole.
Four years is not that long for a follow-up album, at least not traditionally. Crafting art with longevity and perfectionism takes time. Coming up with a whole new concept, one which builds on a beautifully half-formed artistic direction, takes even longer. The majority of the sounds on both ‘Endless’ and ‘Blonde’ are live instrumentation, complex (and expensive) samples and redeuxs, or original material from some of the most in-demand musicians working today. James Blake, Sampha and Kendrick Lamar appear on the credits alongside The Beatles and Bowie. And in that sense, it’s like listening to his secret photo-blog. Inspiration brought to life, like in daydreams that spawn from whole days staring at Ziggy Stardust posters and Stevie Wonder vinyl sleeves.
So was it worth it?
Did Frank Ocean deliver on the promise that the fans made to themselves on his behalf? This isn’t an easy question to answer, especially when the question should be ‘What did they want?’
If it was Frank they were after, then it’s Frank they got. A demi-God they made in their adoration, who is free to put up two Tumblr posts in a year, cryptic library cards and an endless stream. 16 tracks, a 45-min visual album, and a magazine that most of us will never get to touch. He drowned out the noise and was given the power to be selective and selfish, something that Kanye West was trying to create for himself with the messy a misguided release of TLOP.
The pressure of a blank canvas is unsurmountable to most artists, and obviously something Frank has been dealing with for 4 whole years. Only he could decide when he was ready to pull back the satin curtain and reveal his next masterpiece. And when he did, the whole world watched.
His early supporters will wish they never kicked up such a fuss, because it was they who drew global attention to his delayed releases. People who were spurred on to explore his early works quickly found their mouths and tweets filled with the fashionable words of his unavoidably online following. – It’s been almost a decade since Portishead released Third, and even that came 11 years after their self titled sophomore. Frank just happened to become central to the plight of a demographic who choose to document everything.
Blonde is a masterpiece. It really is. The luscious soundscapes battle with terrifying electronic refrains. His distinct vocal is warped out of all recognition. His contributors work as contributors should; punctuating and elevating the artist at work, facilitating the realisation of his vision with selflessness and cohesion. Endless is a tough watch, since little happens visually. But again, it is a stunning exercise in the art of metaphor. The multiple Franks work together on their DIY project after a fortnight of lone tinkering that lead to nothing. Musically, it is arguably better than the sprawling monologues of Blonde, and there is a reason why it is unlikely to ever appear as a standalone album. If Endless was ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ and there was no visual accompaniment, it would be just a bloody good and original RnB project that took four years to make, but as we watch his various manifestations working away, we see that he is building a staircase to a higher point.
This entire saga which did at times feel, endless, probably isn’t over. But if it is, it is not likely to be forgotten any time soon. 2016 has been fraught culturally and politically, and it seems like tradition is dead and no one knows what they’re doing.
No one, except Frank Ocean. It’s cynical to think that this has all been the most stunningly executed PR campaign in history, but you have to commend the way in which Frank gave us just enough to let us know that he was still there, somewhere, in the distance. This weekend he crashed back in the public consciousness not as a long-term fan abuser, but as an artist, a musician, and a higher order of a modern spokesperson.