For a while the Internet was convinced Frank Ocean had completely vanished. Where was he? Why did he keep "missing" album release dates? Maybe it took him so long to release a new album because he was actually abducted by the U.S. Government? Maybe he changed careers or something? How could he post pictures of himself chilling and eating breakfast when the world is waiting on his album to drop?
Frank Ocean is a tease and he knows it. It took four years to get fresh music from him, four years since Channel Orange, his much-loved, critically acclaimed, Grammy-snatching debut effort. In a pop music industry where top artists push out an album every year or so, four years is an incredibly long, anxiety-filled time.
But good things come to those who wait!
Showing off his skills as a multimedia artist, this weekend Ocean surprise dropped more than just music. The first was the Thank-God-Frank-Ocean-is-still-alive-collective-sigh-of-relief unveiling of Endless, a stunning, 45-minute long high concept visual album currently only available on Apple Music. Then came "Nike," a colourful, innovative new music video unattached to Endless that pays tribute to Trayvon Martin, Pimp C, and A$AP Yams, and which largely features people of color, booties that shake and get smacked and are covered in glitter, plus an Ocean serving a strong eye makeup game.
And as if that wasn't enough, fans can now flip through Boys Don't Cry, a visually lush zine released for free exclusively in pop-up shops in London, New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago featuring poems, essays, artworks, and interviews, including a poem called "Boyfriend" by Ocean himself and another about McDonald's by Kanye West. These bad boys are flying off the shelves of eBay for as much as $2,000 a pop but "don't pay those ridiculous prices for the mag on eBay," his own mom tells fans. "Just hang tight a sec." She must know the full tea.
Boys Don't Cry came with a free copy of Blonde, Ocean's official sophomore effort. The 17-track record includes collaborations with powerhouses like Jazmine Sullivan, Andre 3000, Tyler, The Creator, James Blake, Kendrick Lamar, and, yes, Beyonce who sings on the avant garde soul track "Pink + White" but you won't notice her if you don't listen carefully. She's a background singer!
Blonde, out now on Apple Music, is an ambitious record that cuts across multiple genres and deals with drugs, sex, relationships, Facebook, and the trap of social media, and features stirring lyrics like "this feel like a Quaalude" from the chill electro vibe of "Nights" and steamy "I'll be the boyfriend in your wet dreams tonight" from the stripped back, acoustic guitar-led "Self Control." Other stand out tracks include the relaxed "Seigfried" with its extremely beautiful, even cinematic string work, the third to last song on the album but a place where Ocean really shows off his voice ("I'd do anything for you...in the dark"). Another easy favorite is "Skyline To," a slow burning number with beautiful harmonies that soar, punctuated by an unassuming, elegant dub beat that runs underneath.
Frank Ocean is a master of his craft, an artist who won't be limited by genre, sound or even medium, which is what makes Blonde stand out even more against the more experimental tone of Endless. Ocean's take on the visual album isn't driven by narrative or storytelling like Beyonce's Lemonade, perhaps the crown jewel of the genre. There's not much to "see" in this super stylish black and white video at all. Workers shuttle back and forth in a cold, industrial work space, drawing, preparing, constructing. You're pretty much waiting for something, anything, to happen for 45-minutes, sort of like how we've spent the last four years waiting for Frank Ocean. Even when the visual album begins we still wait more than a minute for Ocean's voice to soar in - "When I feel" he sings on "At Your Best (You Are Love)," an Isley Brothers Cover featuring James Blake, Radiohead's Johnny Greenwood, and the London Contemporary Orchestra. But when he does, it's well worth the wait.
What I love about Endless is how close it is to the art world. The huge boom box featured in the video is actually Toyan's, a 2002 mixed-media sculpture of a boom box by the American artist Tom Sachs. More, Endless opens and closes with "Device Control," an as yet unreleased techno track by Turner Prize winning artist Wolfgang Tillmans. "With this Apple appliance, you can capture live video," Tillmans says on the track. "With this Apple device you can live stream your life," a biting commentary that has a certain kind of meaning given Ocean's exclusivity deal with Apple Music.
Musically, Endless is achingly beautiful and shows just how well Ocean paints with sound. But for some, the project might be a little "boring" because not much happens on screen. That's where they've got it all wrong. Endless is really about endurance, slowing down in a fast-paced socially connected world. It's about edging, making those feel-good moments last a while. Focus. Process, not product. And since not much goes on you sort of forget the thing will end. Endless brings something totally different to the visual album concept than the music video style razzle and dazzle we're used to. It's a work of high concept durational music video art, and it could be screened at MoMA tomorrow.
In some ways, we expect Frank Ocean to be queer and to convey black queerness in his art at every turn. He should and he does. But queerness doesn't always need to be on full blast to have an effect. The queerness of Endless is fairly sneaky, sprinkled in if you're not listening closely. If you're not listening you'll miss lines like, "Sucked a dick long had a swan neck" or the Crystal LaBeija sample, "You're beautiful and you're young. You deserve to have the best in life," which is plucked straight out of the 1967 documentary The Queen. Yes, Frank Ocean! You did that! The sample comes from the documentary, sure, but it really comes from a viral YouTube clip of a legendary reading session from the film (the library is open, darling) that many single black gay men in America know, love, and have shared with friends. "Not Crystal, darling. Anybody but her." As a black gay man myself, I sort of love the fact that even Frank Ocean has seen this YouTube video and laughs and kees about it like many other black gay men I know.
Frank Ocean may be elusive, but he's here to stay. Four years since Channel Orange we now have great material to process and all are unconventional multi-media works that yank music, the music video, and even the pop star to new directions. Frank Ocean is an artist who is about the wait and the process. In the age of instant notifications, Facebook, and constant connectivity, he wants us to slow down, listen, and take it all in.
Madison Moore is a London-based pop culture critic. Follow him on Instagram @madisonmooreonline.