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What's Up With This Techno Song About Smartphones on Frank Ocean’s New Album?

There’s a surprising amount to be learned about the reclusive songwriter from an art photographer’s synth tracks.
August 19, 2016, 7:15pm
Frank Ocean photo from Endless/Wolfgang Tillmans photo by Stuart Mentiply/Wikimedia Commons

Those dedicated Frank Ocean fans who stayed up past their bedtimes Thursday night praying that midnight would finally mark the California-based songwriter's long-promised return were treated to a strange wealth of gifts. At face value, the visual album Endless offers the sort of spectral R&B that's had people anxiously clamoring for a follow-up to Channel Orange since that album's 2012 release, but it's come delivered in some strange packaging.

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There's of course the minimal footage of him tinkering in a workshop that accompanies it, a comment—it would seem—on the painstakingly methodical process that's birthed these new tunes. But even the music itself has its share of strangeness—the idiosyncratic indie rock songwriter Alex G turns up for a couple of guest spots, as does Arca's shattered production hand—but the release is bookended by something weirder still: a disembodied voice chattering about smartphones over shuddering electronics.

A brief snippet of the voice opens the record, but it fully emerges toward the tail end of the broadcast. It blossoms with rudimentary drum programming and a simple synthesizer figure that makes it feel like nothing so much as Kraftwerk's proto-techno-chants (though that interpretation may be aided a bit by the voice's German accent). The voice here is a little more human than the way that band would funnel their lyrics through vocoders or computerized speech synthesizers, but only marginally. There's something about the delivery that feels dead, defeated.

"With this Apple appliance, you can capture live videos," the voice begins. "Still and motion pictures shot at high frequency—blurring the line between still and motion pictures." When the album's credits pop up at the end of the video, it turns out that, of course, this voice doesn't belong to Ocean, but to the famed artist Wolfgang Tillmans, who as FACT points out, posted about it earlier today on Instagram.

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The German photographer's recently been emphasizing the musical side of his output, releasing an album called 2016/1986 last month, and teasing an EP called Device Control, which is apparently set to feature the first music in years by the witch house progenitors SALEM. That EP, at least according to Rolling Stone, explains the provenance of the machinations that open and close Endless. The track is titled "Device Control" and the only credited writer is Tillmans—with some addItional drum and synth work from other musicians—so the question becomes…what is it doing on a new Frank Ocean release?

Putting aside the long-standing aesthetic connections between rap, R&B, and techno, and Ocean's obvious affinity for art world figures, there's a few things that are interesting about the fact that it's Tillmans that he chose to include, and this track specifically. There's the fact that Tillmans' own musical career is a far more dramatic version of the delays that Ocean's been accused of (on 2016/1986 he included a few pieces of music that'd been in progress for nearly three decades). But it goes further still than biographical similarities. Looking closer at the apparent technobabble that fills the monologue can give a bit of insight. The Apple reference feels, in some way, like a small jab at the fact that the album is presently only available to Apple Music subscribers, but the track opens up from there—repeatedly, emphatically, unceasingly urging listeners to "livestream your life."

That's what people sort of assumed Ocean was doing, when he first debuted some of the construction portions of the visual on his website last month, but the line here is more of a comment on privacy, insularity, getting off the internet. Ocean didn't have an actual hand in the track's composition, but its inclusion feels like a veiled message from him to the folks who've been relentlessly anticipating his record over the last few years: get off the internet and live. It's sort of the opposite of what Kraftwerk were doing with similar tracks almost half a decade ago. They'd blast off into digitalist dreamlands, gleefully murmuring about charging their batteries or whatever. Instead of a transhumanist experiment of foregrounding tech, "Device Control" is built around a fear that all these devices might actually turn us into the robots that Kraftwerk claimed to be. Whether you buy that or not is up to you, but it couldn't stand in further contrast to the vibrant, gentle, human emotions that fill the rest of Endless. It's clear which one Ocean wants us to hold onto.

You can stream Frank Ocean's Endless now on Apple Music. Wolfgang Tillmans' Device Control is reportedly out on September 16.