Music / Frank Ocean

Where Did Frank Ocean Go?

I, like many other Twitter users, spent the better part of 2015 and 2016 militantly tweeting “WHERE’S FRANK???”

If you were anywhere near social media in 2015 and 2016, you would have seen memes, tweets, Facebook posts, subreddit pages, or what have you, all from Frank Ocean fans who were scouring the Internet’s sea floor for any online forums or articles containing any piece of information about Blonde. At the time, however, it was called “Boys Don’t Cry”—we didn’t know anything about the album title change until the project actually dropped in late August of this year. Leading up to the album release, Frank Ocean worshippers essentially became bottom feeders, slurping up any and all information they could find and latching onto any miniscule factoid about Frank’s second album. The fascinating thing is that fans got pretty much close to nothing. Frank’s response to not only his fans but also the world was silence. He effectively evaporated. The promising lover-boy was the music world’s milk carton missing child. It seemed as though he completely vanished off the face of the Earth. As it turns out, that was kind of a genius move.

Before Frank Ocean was Frank Ocean, he was part of the misfit rap group Odd Future. He was their sole singer, and perhaps, within this misfit Odd Future crew comprised of rappers, you could say that he was the misfit. The other personalities in Odd Future formed the renegade, brash (bordering on obnoxious), aggressive, not-giving-a-hoot, cult-like friendship circle so heavily embodied by the group’s charismatic star Tyler, the Creator. Odd Future’s appeal was that it was a shock-value rap group that said and did whatever it wanted. They were controversial. Frank was not. He was quieter and gentler. He had a softer voice, and when he crooned, boy did he make you well up with tears.

Frank began to branch out from the Odd Future group. In 2011, he released his mixtape Nostalgia Ultra, which met some good Internet buzz. It was featured on most hip-hop and R&B websites and was well received by the music-reviewing colossus Pitchfork. The next year he released his full-length debut, Channel Orange. It was acclaimed by almost every music critic out there, and Frank nuzzled his way to the edge of R&B limelight, becoming a darling and a dark horse. Although music critics loved him and could plainly see his talent, only the R&B and hip-hop communities really knew about him. He was the kid no one knew in class who sat in the back left corner doodling on a piece of paper, and it was only when he opened his mouth and said something that people picked their heads up, turned to look at him, and said: “Hey, this person exists.”

 Photo courtesy of Mark C Austin, Pemberton Music festival/Flickr

 Photo courtesy of Mark C Austin, Pemberton Music festival/Flickr

It’s important to understand the two years preceding Blonde’s release. The years that followed the 2012 release of Channel Orange were crucial. As people marinated in the Channel Orange juices, Frank was on a mini-wave of stardom. His hit single “Thinkin’ Bout You” got generous radio play. He appeared on big name albums, most notably on Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch the Throne and Beyoncé’s Beyoncé. He was also invited to perform at the 2013 Grammy Awards, dazzling audiences with his performance of the standout track “Forrest Gump.” At this point, Channel Orange filtered through to the general public and Frank built himself a reputation. But as the years began to pass, fans began to crave more Frank Ocean music. They started asking questions and speculating about new songs and projects, but Frank didn’t give any indication that he was working on anything new.

In an April 2015 Tumblr post, Frank gave a title, release date, and album cover for an upcoming project. People started to jump onto the Frank Ocean new album hype train, not realizing that it wouldn’t leave the station. It was just a cardboard cutout of a train and fans would be sitting in it for the next year until they realized they’d been had. In the Tumblr post, Frank said that the album would be called “Boys Don’t Cry.” Frank said that it would be released in “#July2015.” Frank showed two different possible album covers that might accompany the album.

Sadly, every poor, unsuspecting Frank fan ate it all up. And why wouldn’t they? They believed him. Within a year, fans began to take notice that not only had an album not dropped, but also there was no sign that it would even be released. “Have we been lied to?” was a common fear among his adoring fans. He vanished when the R&B world wanted him most.

It was all quiet on the Frank Ocean front. Fans took to Twitter to voice their frustrations. Reddit pages popped up discussing unsubstantiated rumors concerning everything from release dates to song titles to features. The Internet was imploding.

Initially, the world thought that this was just how Frank was. He’s an oddball. He’s never been one for too many interviews, but after the April 15 Tumblr post he transformed into an unapologetic recluse from social media and the Internet. You could say it was just Frank avoiding the distraction of social media in order to focus on making his second major project a masterpiece, but whatever way you look at it, his silence, inadvertent or not, made this thing one of the most highly anticipated albums in recent memory.

While Frank may have seemed as though he was being coy, his silence was instead a clever strategy to build up hype for his new album. Frank’s silence became a sensation. Waiting for this Frank album became almost an inside joke that onlookers couldn’t help but want to be a part of. Frank was building his fan base without saying a word. I don’t think someone has gotten that famous from being silent since Charlie Chaplin.

Then finally, out of nowhere on July 2, 2016, Frank spoke—kind of. Frequent visitors to his website would notice that the domain name changed to “boysdontcry.co.” In another overtly cheeky move, Frank’s first new post in years on his website was an image of an overdue library card with various dates scratched off on it. Most were arbitrary dates from different months in 2015. There were, however, two dates in 2016 that caught the eye of fans: July 2016 and November 13, 2016. The exact day for July was scratched out. The Internet exploded again. Frank was back! In hopeful anticipation, fans immediately speculated that the album would be a surprise drop sometime in July 2016, exactly a year later than when he initially said it would drop.

Guess what didn’t drop in July of 2016? Are you seeing a pattern? Part of Frank’s genius in hyping this album was giving nothing or gifting his followers very small pieces of information that give just enough hope to turn people on their heads.

He broke fan’s hearts again for the second July in a row. East Coast Frank Ocean fans were devastated when the clock struck midnight on July 31. They would then be forced to rip off the July page from their calendars to the August page. Frank missed the July deadline. Frank lied again. If East Coast fans waited just three hours for the West Coast to catch up to the end of July and the start of August, they would see a bizarre video pop up on Frank Ocean’s website.

Frank didn’t drop an album, but he did drop some more precious hope. What was this hope? Fans weren’t promised anything. They were just given the notion that Frank, the little dickens, was up to something. The video didn’t divulge any information. It was a loop of some footage in a warehouse with the Apple Music logo written at the top. Over the next few weeks, it started getting updated, with videos of Frank himself (yes, many fans were just happy to see that he was alive) building something with crazy tools, as music could be heard playing somewhere off to the side.

The same day the video surfaced on his website, the New York Times published an article that confirmed Frank Ocean’s new album Boys Don’t Cry would be released as an Apple Music exclusive on Friday, August 5. According to the Times, the source for this information was “a person with knowledge of the release plans.”

Some Frank Ocean fans seemed to be catching on to Frank’s little game. A surprise release seemed to be the direction he was going for with this album. Some fans immediately said, “Yeah, no, it won’t drop. When’s Trey Songz’s new album coming out?” Others, more faint and desperate of heart (yes, I am included in this demographic), were already in the process of telling all their friends to start their Apple Music three-month free trials.

It didn’t drop on Friday, August 5, 2016. Frank Ocean fans were running out of steam. It seemed that most of them packed up their bags, left, and assumed that the November 13 release date on the library card was the actual release date. Some fans lost their marbles, such as one such fan who threatened to kidnap Frank’s brother if he didn’t release the album. For the most part, however, the boiling excitement seemed to cool, and at a certain point, fans just couldn’t handle the emotional stress anymore. They had had enough.

Then, out of nowhere, on August 18, a visual album called “Endlessdropped on Frank’s website. Endless had new music and complemented the strange footage that had surfaced on Ocean’s website in the beginning of August. Then, on August 20, Frank Ocean’s follow-up to Channel Orange dropped out of nowhere, right when fans weren’t expecting it. This was just how Frank had intended. Instead of being called “Boys Don’t Cry, the album was peculiarly titled “Blonde.

It had been a dramatic couple of years of waiting and angst. Frank Ocean’s hardcore fans immediately forgave him. They got what they wanted, they loved it, and the wait appeared to have paid off. The stamina of Frank Ocean’s hardcore fans was stretched, but a side effect of the drawn-out release was a drastic influx of new fans. Their interest piqued by his longtime fans’ incessant inquiries and vented frustrations online, the many newcomers couldn’t help but check in and see what all the fuss was about. It’s hard to say whether this was Frank’s intention. Like I said, maybe he just feels uncomfortable being in the public eye. Then again, dropping hints, waiting, and then dropping more hints—it’s kind of hard to imagine that this wasn’t a delightfully painful cheeky little wink and smile from one of R&B’s beloved oddballs. 

Photo courtesy of Andy Holmes, Pemberton Music festival/Flickr

Photo courtesy of Andy Holmes, Pemberton Music festival/Flickr

 Frank Ocean: Blonde Album Review

A hypnotic 808 beat with a thumping bass and rich background synths drives the opening bars of “Nikes.” Its sounds are bizarre and fascinating, dark and dizzying. The delightfully dazed-out beat is, as a whole, a good indicator of the low-key subtle vibe of the rest of the album. The beat is teasing. Taunting. You’re perched on the edge of the beat, waiting to fall into the warm embrace of Frank’s charming croon.

What will his first words be? “Listen, guys, I’m real sorry about the past few years…” would be pretty great.

It’s funny, because the new album is finally here, and Frank is making us wait again for his voice. Thirty seconds later he sings. You were waiting for Frank but you didn’t get Frank. Instead, you get a chintzy, unbecoming, high-pitched fast-food vocal effect that cheapens not only a scrumptious soufflé of a beat, but also the aching emotion of his voice that you can’t help but feel would be much more effective had it not been submerged by an Alvin and the Chipmunks voice manipulator. Frankly, it’s infuriating. “Nikes” is a disappointment as an opening to the album. Other listeners may try to justify the vocal effect and say that yeah, maybe it’s part of a bigger purpose or helps hammer home the materialistic desires of the world that “Nikes” touches upon, but makes whatever effect the song is trying to achieve fall flat. “Nikes” does get better once Frank comes out of hiding behind the vocal effect halfway through the song, but as a whole “Nikes” is a weak introduction.

Although “Nikes” is a stumbling block, it is, thankfully, the only misstep of the album. The rest of the music on Blonde offer delightful, thoughtful, and absolutely beautiful sounds. The album functions best when there’s very little there in terms of instrumentation. Rather than constructing an ultrasonic album with human-genome-like complexity, Frank seems to have spent the past four years stripping down his songs to bare skeletons and crafting an album with perfectly simple yet delicate backdrops in order to enhance the potent emotional fragility laid out on each track through his lyrical prowess and songwriting abilities.

The music and the lyrics function exquisitely together. While most songs are so bare instrumentally, each track never ceases to fascinate with the emotional message. “Ivy” is smattered with Frank’s confessions about a past love and relies solely on very light and wobbly guitar strumming, creating a dream-like ethereal space for Frank to enclose himself and consider his own nostalgia. In “Solo,” an absolute stunner, the listener will only hear peaceful organ-like keyboard strokes and echoing whistles, making the song somewhat reminiscent of “Forrest Gump” from Channel Orange. The peaceful piano melodies in “Solo” enhance the peace Frank finds in drugs:

It’s hell on Earth and the city’s on fire/Inhale in hell there’s heaven…”

Amidst the insanity of the world, Frank sequesters himself to a little pocket and finds an escape. This song is absolutely breathtaking and should not be skipped over.

“Self Control.” Good god. “Self Control” will reduce you to an emotional mess. You won’t be able listen to that song without curling up into a ball and dissolving into the most simple single-cell life form possible. It’s garnished with gentle, ethereal guitar chords that accentuate the feeling of the moment when you see someone who catches your eye. You can’t help the urge to want to be with that person, but you feel that you may lose your self-control and get too carried away. Frank knows that we’ve all been there. Frank hits you where it hurts. Toward the end of the track, Frank’s singing gets louder and the guitars begin to echo his voice more until it all fades out somewhat abruptly. Has he lost confidence in this relationship? Does he worry that it can’t work?

Photo courtesy of Andy Holmes, Pemberton Music festival/Flickr

Photo courtesy of Andy Holmes, Pemberton Music festival/Flickr

Not every song relies on subtle backdrops and quieted tones.

“Pink + White” is blessed with Pharrell production credits, making this one of the most incredible instrumentals thus far in 2016. Pharrell effortlessly makes songs pop. “Pink + White” is just another indicator of Pharrell’s genius as a producer. With a head-bobbing three-four time signature, the backbone of the beat lies in the driving bass line, sharp keyboards, Latin-esque guitar strumming, and subtle yet effective drum raps.

Then, of course, Frank comes in. His vocal delivery and adherence to the snappy beat is one of the most entertaining moments on this album. He fits perfectly into this more complex beat and brings in the one and only Beyoncé for back-up vocals in the outro. It’s a powerhouse of a track, perhaps the most magnificent three minutes and five seconds of music released this year.

The effectiveness of Frank’s voice stems from his ability to pour the most fragile emotions into his music, thus creating strength of emotional connectivity with listeners that can bring people to tears. He has what I like to call a “vocal-velvet” voice. With subtle instrumentals, Frank takes his voice to a new level. Frank took four years to make Blonde. The internet and the world waited so damn long for this thing to come out and it’s finally here. Was it big and loud and complex? No. Was it multi-layered and groundbreaking musically? No.

Blonde, in all of its subtle beauty, does not immediately come across as an album that took four years to craft. One would expect a four-year album to be something huge, something explosive, something exhilarating. The fact is, it took Frank four years to decide he was ready to release it. His lack of communication was a testament to his ability to focus. Instead of simply throwing the project out for the people who wanted it so bad, he worked on it. And worked on it, and worked on it, and worked on it. He built songs up and then meticulously stripped them down, thus making for a more subtle listen. For the casual music listener, a common thought might be, “How did this take four years to write?” All it takes to answer this question is for you to simply sit down with this thing, and really, really listen. The pure brilliance of this project is in the subtle emotional nuances of Frank’s lyrics and delivery. The album is nuts and bolts instrumentally; but with that said, the meatless instrumentation is a perfect accompaniment to Frank’s voice.

There are apparently hours of unreleased music and demos that were scrapped. There’s no telling what those cuts sounds like, and honestly, do we really want to know? Frank made a lot of music, and put down seventeen of what he thought were the best pieces of music for this album. He sifted through sound after sound and perfected each detail until he created a complete project he thought was perfect and ready to be released. Blonde is unornamented yet effective; it’s peaceful yet impactful, and heart wrenching. Frank took a long time to create something so simple—and it’s beautiful.
Standout Tracks: Pink + White, Solo, Self Control, Ivy, Skyline To, Nights