Was the art worth the wait?
Following four years of online agitated anticipation, of Tumblr rumors and Canadian DJs tweeting false hope, Frank Ocean released not one, but two albums: the zenlike Endless, a visual koan and possible woodshop promotional video, and Blonde, a sonic labyrinth tempting disappearance of self, the way a first-time visitor loses oneself in a brand-new, beautiful city. Virtuosic, intimate, gorgeous both, but those are conclusions not reached immediately, and possibly only following repeated listenings.
Because in each case, the first voice you hear does not sound like Frank, in one case I mean that literally, in the other figuratively. “With this Apple appliance, you can capture live video,” the German artist Wolfgang Tillmans intones, voice distorted, to begin Endless, chanting “blurry, blurry, the line,” before Frank sets the mood desired with a crackling “At Your Best (You Are Love)” cover. The message: If Frank’s pure croon is what you seek, you’ll have to wait a little longer.
So too is the case with “Nikes,” the opening track to Blonde. Though it’s Frank’s voice, it’s twisted, garbled, a radio broadcast from a separate planet, the source perhaps an alien species. Halfway through, Frank proper comes through, but he’s singing backup vocals to the chipmunk soul singer on display. You’d be excused for thinking Frank remained in hiding after all this time. When that familiar, lovely voice sings “We’ll let you guys prophesy,” it’s almost relieving to hear the man still exists within his own myth.
And who is that man? Frank Ocean reveals himself to be a multi-faceted soul producing art about our collective struggle to connect in an isolated, digital world. It isn’t easy either: relationships burst and meaning is duplicitous. But that doesn’t stop Frank from trying — singing (and rapping!) his damn heart out.
But still it’s slippery pinpointing Frank, even within “Nikes” alone. What version of the song are we discussing: The album version? The “Nikes” video that dropped as a single ahead of the album? Or perhaps the pop-up store album “Nikes,” which features Japanese rapper KOHH spitting fiery-sounding bars you likely don’t understand? “I got two versions,” a Hulk-sounding Frank says on the video “Nikes,” parodying (parroting?) his Tumblr post from a year ago, when he showed off his “Boys Don’t Cry” magazine. Back then the phrase pointed to two issues of the mag, and immediate speculation following the releases meant his two albums. But it seems more and more likely Frank’s referring to himself.
Multiple identities abound in our digital age. The smartphone age, more accurately. The avatar of your online persona differs from the you with family which varies from the you with your partner that isn’t anything like the you alone on a Saturday night. Anxious, isn’t it, living that kind of double or triple life? That stress only builds once you stop assuming you’re the only one performing these multiple roles day to day. In meeting someone new, for friendship or more, around the time everything starts gelling pleasantly, it’s difficult for an insidious thought not to pop into your head: “Yeah, but is this the real them?” And then: “Am I even being the real me?”
More than any other singer, more than any other contemporary artist really, Frank taps into these modern, mistrusting sentiments. “Things I wouldn’t tell nobody / Some things I didn’t even tell me,” he wails in Endless’ “Alabama,” inexplicable even to himself (him too? thank goodness). All the while multiple Frank clones toil away, not talking to one another, pausing for an occasional phone break. He’s pleading for genuine connection, begging to hear, “What can I do to know you better than I do now?” And also: “What can I do to love you more than I do now?” And of all singers to accompany such a sentiment, he chooses Sampha, someone who clings to inscrutable self-preservation as much as, if not more, than Frank Ocean (which is saying something).
He lashes out as much as he self-lacerates. “N****s tryna go pop, I draw contact / With my facemask,” he raps on “U-N-I-T-Y.” Yes, rapping. He’s done it previously, but none more so than on these projects, further erasing all the social lines aiming to trap him. But as soon as he fronts, he confesses in the same breath: “Perusing the MoMA / I’m all on my lonely, burst in tears / On his shoulder and it’s so cold cause he sculptured.” I couldn’t imagine a sadder image and turn-of-phrase: Even art doesn’t comfort the artist, but the air-conditioned stone is all he has to combat his isolation.
On previous projects Channel Orange and nostalgia, ULTRA. we heard these kinds of therapy session admissions. What’s always drawn listeners to Frank has been his vulnerable sincerity. He didn’t hide behind typical postmodern flaunting nor did he lie. And even when he did, he immediately subverted that posturing, as mentioned above, or would blurt out the truth, like a child unable to keep up his charades.
“I swear I’ve got three lives / Balanced on my head like steak knives,” goes that famous phrasing on Orange’s rapturous “Bad Religion.” That song, one of the artist’s best, most closely correlates to what’s found on Blonde. But whereas he divulges those “three lives” then, he acts them out now, through audio manipulation and various characters coming in and out like vignettes.
In the video for “Nikes,” not only does Frank present multiple selves—the mascara-wearing loner drinking by himself, the glitter glam pretty, the stripped-down singer donning streetwear—there’s the way a camera shot of a Jacuzzi party gives way to a nude woman swimming majestically, like a mermaid, lingering peaceful through the water. Then how the camera cuts back further to reveal that the woman’s been floating in a fish tank, another camera capturing this image. It’s like some giant game to figure out what’s really going on here.
It’s all a confrontation: What do you chose this to mean?
The duplicity extends to the lyrics, too. “Solo,” Frank repeats in the track with the same name, and when he sings “Riding solo,” very quickly its meaning morphs to “Riding so low” as well. An example of great songwriting, sure, something Frank’s always excelled at. But the hook elevates into pure poetry with “It’s hell on Earth and the city’s on fire / Inhale, inhale there’s heaven / There’s a bull and a matador dueling in the sky / Inhale, inhale there’s heaven.” But does he mean “in hell, in hell there’s heaven”? Or possibly “Inhale, in hell there’s heaven?” It’s all a confrontation: What do you chose this to mean?
But it’s the moments with Frank, the storytelling bits we cling to. “Did you call me from a séance / You are from a past life,” he raps in the trippy “Nights.” (Never had I heard the online concept of “ghosting” expressed so purely.) And in “Good Guy,” regarding a hollow night meeting a blind date in New York, he tosses off, “You text nothing like you look,” capturing such a universal millennial sentiment. Add to that this from “Futura Free”: “Remember when I had that Lexus no / Our friendship don’t go back that far.” Such alienation in a hyper-connected world, and yet so familiar the feelings as well. No wonder we can never get enough of Frank.
No doubt: This is an artist excavating himself deeply and thoroughly, working really, really hard to express his entire self as fully as possible. This is all of me, these various multitudes, these numerous sounds, these alternate forms of art, he seems to be saying. Before Frank showed how he viewed the world, but the leap between projects is clear: We’re in his world now. In it, covers and original songs blur as similar expressions. Artists like Beyonce and Kendrick Lamar provide background vocals and Andre 3000 fires poetic nuclear explosions through machine-gun bars. His mother and younger brother make appearances, shaping how we see Frank and what makes up him.
What’s most clear about Frank’s world is rather simple: In it, he can be whoever he wants. The albums double as a totemic war he’s waging to defeat all the barriers–self-manifested and social expectations–confining him. With the print magazine “Boys Don’t Cry”—released exclusively at pop-up shops—the visual album Endless, and the audio tour de force that is Blonde, Frank’s statement is total. He cannot be reduced. He isn’t one idea, or one person. He’s all of it, a self as boundless and beautiful and mysterious as the ocean itself.