Frank Ocean vs. the world

Courtesy / Frank Ocean
Frank Ocean/Courtesy
Courtesy / Frank Ocean

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After four years, three weeks and 32 minutes of waiting, then hoping, then switching back to waiting — because time just goes on whether you like it or not and sometimes people call this waiting, although sometimes they just call it life — at 12:32 a.m. PST on Monday, Aug. 1, it seemed that Frank Ocean’s painfully long-promised album was finally, really, actually, about to drop.

I gasped aloud and clicked under the link that appeared in my Twitter feed. Then I watched the almost-silent video of an empty room that was his album “drop” for longer than I’d care to admit.

In all the theatrics of the modern-day album drop — the visual intricacy of Lemonade or the all-immersive arena spectacular of The Life of Pablo’s listening tour — Ocean goes further, making us tune into his video but sit still only in silence with ourselves. There is no distraction here but white noise, a nearly empty room and whatever we bring to our own screens.

It wasn’t even a live-stream (as one fan cleverly noticed an hour or so in) but an art project from director Francisco Soriano. A loop, a trick. Ocean is always one step ahead of his fans, it seems, whether they love or hate him for it. Or, as one fan put it on Twitter late Sunday night, “frank ocean more like prank ocean.”  

With no livestream, no album, no word from Ocean, it was the other side of July yet again and there was nothing — just tens of thousands of tweets flying from the thumbs of frustrated fans.

Like on April 6, 2015, when Ocean posted, “‘I got two versions. I got twoooo versions.’ #ISSUE1 #ALBUM3 #JULY2015 #BOYSDONTCRY.” on his Tumblr.

Or July 21, 2015, when a fake album cover had the Internet fooled.

Or Aug. 1, 2015, which came and went with no album.

Or Aug. 8, 2015, when his younger brother Instagrammed a photo of Ocean, captioned, “It’s finally out! Link in my bio,” which, when clicked, led to Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up,” before Ocean ultimately pulled out of his headlining slot at FYF Fest later in the month without warning or explanation. (Seriously. I wish I could make this stuff up.)

Being a Frank Ocean fan, it seems, is not exactly worshipping at the altar of punctuality.

Even in his vocal silence, Ocean has still managed to make an impact with his work and proven he can and does interact with his fans online. In 2013, he remixed Migos’ “Versace” in the unusual form of posting a verse he’d written of the song to his Tumblr along with a link to the instrumental but never actually recording the track himself.

Ocean’s appeal stretches far beyond his musical force and into his cultural value, into the relationship he has with his fans. When he told the story (in another Tumblr post) of the summer he fell in love for the first time, and that it was with a man, he began with: “Whoever you are, wherever you are.. I’m starting to think we’re a lot alike. Human beings spinning on blackness. All wanting to be seen, touched, heard, paid attention to.”

Directly speaking to fans as equals is one of the most powerful things an artist can do, especially when the message being articulated is one of empathy, kindness and strength. In truth, a lot of the reasons musicians, pop stars and the like are popular is because of their relatability. We look so fondly at the artists we love often because they remind us of better versions of ourselves, of who we could be if we worked a little harder, sang a little better. Who we could be if we were a little more than ourselves.

Pop stars, in essence, do well when they are able to remind us that they are just like us. And they do best when they are able to tell us that not through fumbling attempts at normalcy in the Hollywood eye but through turning off the ultralight beam of their status for a moment and sitting down with us through the speakers or our laptop screens in our bedrooms, person to person, heart to heart.

When they share our experiences, they remind us we aren’t alone; when they share our struggles, they remind us we can do it, because they’ve done it, too. Toward the end of his letter, he addressed his mother, saying: “Thanks… You raised me strong. I know I’m only brave because you were first,” and in truth, the fans he made feel less alone by sharing his story likely could have said the same to him.

Anonymity, its own kind of silence, is a surprisingly common feat in the digital age: Sia, for example, famously obscures her face from view in an attempt to retain her privacy, whereas Beyonce’s self-image and what she lets slip to the public is so careful and well-curated that she left large swathes of the world wondering how autobiographical her concept album Lemonade was.

But how much more of Ocean’s years-long silence can his fans take?

With his signature rhythm of making promises only to break them, Ocean is testing the elasticity of fan love in an unprecedented way, made possible for the first time by the digital age. At no other point in music history have musicians been so accessible to fans nor fans so accessible to musicians; at no point has it been so mind-blowingly easy for the two polar worlds of fan and artist to collide and collude with the single swipe of a finger on a phone screen. Never has it been so easy for fans to talk directly to their heroes — or, as some Ocean fans did after he failed to deliver for the twice-absent second album Aug. 1, 2015, editing his Wikipedia page name to read “Frank you lied to us all Ocean” and his profession to be “Singer also liar.” Never, too, has it been so easy for artists to say what they feel, whenever, wherever, to their fans.

And at almost no point has Ocean said a damn thing.

But unlike the musician they worship, his fans seem to have less of a propensity to stay silent. There’ve been no scheduled appearances at which fans can flock together since July 2013: no album releases, public appearances, concerts. Nothing. Traditionally, fans make themselves felt in three ways: through their voices, their bodies and their purchasing power. With nothing to see and nothing to buy, though, their voices are all Ocean’s fans have left.  

Tyler Adams covers music. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @tylrre.