We missed you, Frank Ocean

Frank Ocean-Carragh McErlean-Staff
Carragh McErlean/Staff

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2016 is the year Frank Ocean boldly declared his humanity.

For those who don’t know yet, Frank Ocean has released not one but two new albums this past week. The first, Endless, was a strange visual album of deep cuts, while Blonde was the pop album salvation counterpart. Both were released within 48 hours of each other.

Whispers of album releases, mysterious unfounded rumors and confusing messages composed by Frank himself dotted the last four years between Channel Orange and this week’s releases. July came and went twice, with promises of an impending album release that were broken without explanation.

The worst moment might have been a little less than a month ago, when what appeared to be a livestream of new material on Ocean’s website turned out to be a strange recorded video of Ocean wood working in a workshop with no music stream and no explanations.

In coded language, he would tell his fans to expect music and then lapse back into silence without follow up. People gave up. Denied the satisfaction of an album drop, everybody was over Frank Ocean.

Ocean refused to follow anyone’s rules except his own. In these summer months awaiting the release, no one could be sure what was more alarming: Ocean’s cryptic high art media absence or Frank Ocean superfans falling off the bandwagon the second they didn’t get what they expected.

In a piece comparing Frank Ocean and Harper Lee as creative icons, the Atlantic contributor Eve Ewing recently drew comparisons between the two reclusive artists on their similar relationships with  fans’ relentless demand for new material.

How does an artist maintain their freedom when they’re bound to fan expectation? How does an artist keep their humanity and artistic integrity in tact in the face of industry, mass culture and the insidious snares of popular demand?

Ocean trapped himself the second Channel Orange blew up. Popular artists usually do when they make it: Harper Lee dealt with her newfound fame by closing herself to the demands for more novels. She didn’t care about demand. Her work was made boldly for herself, released for the benefit of humanity.

Frank Ocean is at that level. His work is a shining beacon, music that takes the specificity of the Black queer experience and guides a popular audience to believe in the universality of it. Still, thankfulness turns pretty quickly into boredom and expectation.

Of course, it’s clear now that he wanted to create more. He just wasn’t going to let anybody keep him from taking his damn time. So now we have two incredible new albums. The hype mostly surrounds Blonde, and for good reason. Blonde is the height of Ocean’s creative achievements.

Nevertheless, the shift of focus from Endless, the more confusing of the two releases, has done it a great disservice. As a work, Endless is more inaccessible and less immediately pleasant. It’s difficult to sit through a video of Ocean building stairs with a string of undifferentiated songs blurring together.

Endless, on the surface, appears to be another talented artist’s move to get out of an undesirable recording contract — Def Jam being Ocean’s. But the level of care Ocean put into the film and the music made it into something entirely more important. Endless proves Ocean’s commitment to his own creation outside the bounds of making money. Endless didn’t need to be popular, but it still needed to be made.

Blonde, on the other hand, could possibly be Frank Ocean’s greatest release to date. Accompanied with the free release of art books at pop-up shops in London, Chicago, New York and Los Angeles, Blonde has redefined the album release as a powerful human experience. The book, a considerable masterwork featuring poetry, photography and a copy of the album inside, equally proves how little Ocean cares about compensation. He’ll get paid, but first he’ll give his painstaking work to the people.

The collaborative credits in the liner notes of Blonde mark no distinction between samples, production, instrumentation and vocals. The posthumous David Bowie sample, James Blake’s post-production reworks and Swedish rapper Yung Lean’s vocals are all treated the same. With such noteworthy contributions, it seems natural not to differentiate. Throughout this process, Ocean took as much care to uplift the humanity of the artists that helped him as he did his own humanity.

On Saturday, after the release of single “Nikes” and the frothing expectation of a full album release, Ocean took to Tumblr to explain his immediate absence on the day of its release. He said on the post, “FUCK, SORRY.. I TOOK A NAP, BUT IT’S PLAYING ON APPLE RADIO RN.”

He took a nap.

This release process is a critical part of these works. This massively popular queer Black artist staked a claim to his process and to his humanity, set far away from the clamoring fans waiting greedily to consume his art and the industry waiting to suckle off of his creative energy.

Frank Ocean has become one of the most singular, human artists of the immediate moment. By allowing us to explore the fruits of his creation, he’s inviting us to do the same.

Contact Justin Knight at [email protected]. Tweet him at @jknightlion.