There is a line in the sand between generations and it's marked “Frank Ocean.”
It seems that certain music elders are flummoxed by the internet's incessant begging for a new album from the loosely termed “R&B” visionary since the release of his debut, Channel Orange, in 2012. They're bemused as to why he's so in demand considering he's not a pop Goliath like Justin Bieber or Rihanna, nor a universally acclaimed maverick like LCD Soundsystem or Neutral Milk Hotel.
Frank is something else. He's an artist who will open his chest and show you the contents but otherwise keep his life cloaked in privacy. Fans wait with bated breath for mere speech bubbles from him. They come in the form of Tumblr essays, and occasionally as luxurious albums, of which there have been only two so far: Nostalgia, Ultra, a free mixtape, and Channel Orange, his major debut.
Last year, an album allegedly titled Boys Don't Cry was to be released, but when Frank pulled out of headlining last summer's FYF festival, it seemed to confirm allegations he wasn't ready to issue new material. As a Frank-ophile, I decided I'd settle for those two prior communications, particularly Channel Orange. Nothing could beat it. Nothing has beaten it still, even with his release of two further records in the past week.
Last Thursday, visual album Endless appeared. Two days later the real album landed, ambiguously titled Blond on the sleeve and Blonde in stores, a gorgeous, mellow collection of lovelorn odes about romance half-won, labored over and ultimately misconstrued. The New York Times had originally misreported that it was coming on Aug. 5. I guess true love waits.
Trying to outdo Channel Orange would be as impossible as J.D. Salinger trying to outsmart The Catcher in the Rye. It was an album that tapped so far into Frank's identity that he revealed he fell in love with a man in his teenage years via his Tumblr shortly before its release. It's still unclear why he chose to make such a revelation. Perhaps he was incapable of living with the hypocrisy of a half-disclosed truth, or aware of the knee-jerk assumption that his songs were solely about heterosexual relations.
Frank has never had to pander to audience norms because he's proven himself an exception, an artist capable of more nuanced conversations, even if he's not engaged quite as literally as other musicians. He rarely gives interviews. Then again, he doesn't have to answer mundane questions about his musical influences because he covers that in the music. Nostalgia, Ultra sampled from Radiohead, Coldplay, The Eagles and MGMT. Blond/e uses The Beatles, Elliott Smith, Hal David and Burt Bacharach.
Frank always gives us insight into his process. This time was no different; the dialogue began immediately with the release of Endless. For me, watching Endless was hard work because — for Frank — Blond/e was hard work. Endless chimed like a math student showing pages of written work before offering up the result to an algebraic conundrum. Of course, many artists require exorcising certain flourishes from their creative loins to get back on course, and perhaps this was a matter of waste not want not. After all, Frank left us bereft of material for four years, so who's complaining about a sudden influx? Via skittering production, minimal electronica and climactic techno beats, Endless was a cleansing elixir, freeing the palate for the emotional journey of Blond/e. The Auto-Tuned spoken message in its final movement declares: “Your life can be streamed in endless communication; we all show an interest in everybody's life …”
What a sentiment to precede the proper Blond/e release. There's a false intimacy to the way Frank's generation lives out each day, sharing every waking thought on Twitter and Facebook, posting its worldview on Instagram. We expose our prettiest truths and reveal little about our ugly selves, the elements that would leave us most exposed. We forgo intimate conversations that remain in our heads, playing over, unresolved. Frank takes stock of both the pretty and the ugly, letting life marinate, then drawing upon past lives through the tinted lens of nostalgia, which is why his heartache always sounds so stunning. Put yourself in his shoes. Imagine bottling all your experiences up and expelling them at once. That rush of release, the anxiety before, the euphoria of its receipt by others, would be enough to paralyze the most anonymous of us.
On “Ivy,” Frank sings, “I don't relate to my peers,” maybe referring to Drake or The Weeknd. But he may as well be talking about us, his listeners. Whether he wanted to or not, he's become the antihero for a society that struggles to define itself. Where nonbelievers consider his lyrics to be vague, or unsatisfactorily incomplete, they're missing the point. Fundamental to millennial so-called “struggle” is a lack of finality, a constant reach for that “yes, at last!” moment. It's the epidemic of now: a world that seems smaller and more accessible yet taunts us with a pressure to see and understand more of it, to go further outside of ourselves.
Frank goes outside. On “Seigfried” he shouts, “I'm not brave!” It's an expression of reticence to keep creating, keep exposing himself when he could just “settle, two kids and a swimming pool.” Thankfully he overcame that fear.
In the days following the Blond/e release, Frank Ocean has spurred immediate reaction via over-earnest reviews peppered with meaningless intellectual positing. It only further showcases Ocean's own masterful way with words, humor and intent. He takes common parlance and pieces together snapshots of reality, making his album more like a DIY scrapbook, impeccably aligned.
Take lead single “Nikes,” about chasing material wealth. Following a shout-out to Trayvon Martin, the teen whose murder inspired the creation of the Black Lives Matter movement (“That nigger look just like me,” he adds), Ocean adopts a different persona and screams, “Woo, fuckin' buzzin', woo!” mimicking Martin's youthful energy and reminding us of the sanctity of innocence, how quickly it's stolen from us.
On “Ivy” he compares a friend who becomes a lover to a “hotel,” incapable of ownership. On “Pink + White” he references Hurricane Katrina, juxtaposing images from his youth with a simple view of things we can't control, such as: “When the sky is pink and white/When the ground is black and yellow.” It segues into a mother telling a child to seek control by not dabbling in mind-altering substances. She claims marijuana makes people “sluggish, lazy, stupid and unconcerned.” Frank moves into “Solo” after this with the line “gone off tabs of that acid” as he documents his on-tour solitude, waiting for someone to get high with to no avail, in search of an escape from society's real problem: “It's hell on earth and the city's on fire.”
While the media continues to churn out Frank Ocean stories that pore over newly revealed, minuscule details, it's hard to know what else to add to Frank's larger narrative as an outsider. Therein lies his ultimate appeal. Ocean pushes us to recognize our inner outsider. The fact that we'll never reach him IRL makes it all the more bittersweet. There won't be anything more substantial to add to his story until Frank acts again. Blond/e isn't just a comeback, it's an act of dominant control in a world of personal chaos.
“Thank you all,” he wrote on Tumblr following its release. “Especially those of you who never let me forget I had to finish. Which is basically every one of y'all. Haha Love you.” It's probably not the album the industry wanted. It's probably not the punch half his fan base wanted to feel after waiting four years. But you can be sure of one thing: Frank did it his way.