By Manu Clavel
In a music industry where artists struggle or don’t even try to keep their personal lives out of the spotlight, Frank Ocean is a brim of sunlight that exemplifies the privacy, and to some extent, the isolation and seclusion that is lacking in today’s hyper-connected world. It has been a long time since we have witnessed an artist who, despite not having social media nor any apparent connection to the outside world, manages to still remain relevant and praised.
Frank Ocean, born Christopher Lonny Breaux in Long Beach, California and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana, was forced to move to Los Angeles after Hurricane Katrina hit his hometown and college dorm in the University of New Orleans, effectively destroying all his music recording equipment. He started off his career by writing hits for top performers such as Beyoncé, Justin Bieber and John Legend. In an attempt to move out of his comfort zone, he casted away anonymity and started making his own music, releasing it in the form of mixtapes after joining the LA-based hip hop collective Odd Future in 2009. These mixtapes gained traction and soon Frank released his debut album “Channel: Orange”.
After collaborating with several artists, such as Calvin Harris on his single “Slide” and Kanye West’s “The Life Of Pablo”, a mysterious livestream on Frank’s webpage suddenly emerged at 3 in the morning of August 1st of 2017. It featured Frank working on what seemed to be a spiral staircase while new music played in the background. The livestream went on for several weeks until the staircase was finished with the full version of the livestream lasting a total of 140 hours. The new music later proved to be part of his new visual album “Endless”, a gorgeous transitionless stream of instrumentals and ballads Ocean had collected over the 4 years after releasing his debut album.
Once “Endless“ became available on streaming platforms, people thought this long 4 year wait was over. But Frank had more in store for us; specifically a new single titled “Nikes”, which was later found out to be the opening track from his long awaited new album.
“Blonde” was released August 20th 2017, but unlike previous mixtapes and albums, which were listed as Def Jam Recordings releases; this project was released under a new label known as “Boys Don’t Cry”, founded by Ocean himself. After releasing “Endless”, he had fulfilled the Def Jam contract and was now under complete control of his own music, which was one of Ocean’s goals from the very beginning of his career.
With the creation of his own independent label, Frank also put together a magazine also titled “Boys Don’t Cry”, with exclusive content about the making of the album, including photoshoots and a poem about McDonald’s written by Kanye West.
“Blonde” felt like no other project at the time of its release. It is a collection of beautiful and personal tracks, each more intimate than the other, all dealing with issues such as jealousy, personal relationships, the nature of life, lost love, etc. The album feels like a stream of consciousness, with a natural flow from track to track which makes you forget the album ever had tracks to begin with.
Whereas his previous project “Channel: Orange” felt like 70s soul melted with modern R&B, creating a series of very impactful songs that left a mark on the listener (such as Pyramids); Blonde included arrangements from groups such as The Beatles and orchestration from Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, and seemed like a more mature and intimate version of its predecessor, digging deeper into less superfluous topics and connecting with the listener on a different level.
The simplicity on some of these tracks doesn’t correctly reflect how much of an impact and power they can have on you. I would say it’s actually this minimalism, which leaves room for many other elements to factor in the song and make it an incredible experience to listen to. For instance, on the track “Self Control”, Frank sings about a past relationship in which both parties were on different pages. With just an acoustic guitar in the background, coupled with his voice and pitched background vocals, he is able to convey a strong energy and sentiment, thus making the track more impactful yet simplistic at the same time.
As mentioned earlier, something I think artists are lacking in today’s era of music is separation from the limelight. An artist does not have to be a celebrity and Ocean knows that. Ever since his debut album, he was almost never seen in public, only accepting to participate in a few interviews, after which he vanished again and left people wondering what he was up to. Four years is a long time between releases, and without any trace of social media whatsoever, it seems almost impossible being able to maintain a loyal base of listeners. This is not a problem for Frank Ocean — his music is just enough for people not to forget about him. No social media album promotion is needed. No scandal on the news or public statement about whatever topics are being discussed are needed either. This is what truly makes him, not only a good artist, but also a role model for other artists to follow.
After the release of Blonde, Frank quietly went back to his usual slumber, conceding no interviews and no album tour whatsoever. He didn’t even submit the album to the Grammys to be considered as a potential nominee for Album of the Year. In spite of this, he still blessed us with a trail of singles without any correlation between them during 2017 and part of 2018. Blonde is like fine wine, it gets better with time and each listen, so we can confidently assume that people will still be listening to it in 10 and 20 years time, granting it the status of Classic.
“His music is just enough for people not to forget about him. This is what truly makes him, not only a good artist, but also a role model for other artists to follow.”
“The album feels like a stream of consciousness, with a natural flow from track to track which makes you forget the album ever had tracks to begin with.”