How Frank Ocean Conquered the World

It's all about swagger and sway, confidence and influence.
August 25, 2016, 4:00am
Frank Ocean at the Bonnaroo Arts And Music Festival on June 14, 2014 in Manchester, Tennessee. Photo by FilmMagic/FilmMagic for Bonnaroo Arts And Music Festival

It took four years, but Frank Ocean turned the follow-up to Channel Orange, his masterful debut, into an entire weekend event. There was a 45-minute visual album, Endless, a five-minute "Nikes" single and music video, a 360-page Boys Don't Cry glossy zine, the founding of a label of the same name, the debut of four pop-up shops, and the launch of the game-changing 17-track album Blond(e). It was a full production. And buried in the mix, Ocean seemed to give a reason for it all.


The first feature of the Boys Don't Cry zine is an interview with Ocean's friend's mother, Rosie Watson, the maternal voice of wisdom behind Channel Orange's "Not Just Money" and Blond(e)'s "Be Yourself" interludes. Known for dispensing advice to the bevy of young men that surround her, including the likes of Ocean and Syd tha Kid, she divulges the last piece of advice she gave Frank face-to-face.

"Remember in life: You have to have both swagger and sway," Watson says. "'Having swagger is not enough in life. With swagger alone, you're convincing yourself that you have something that you really may not have, and that others don't see in you. Sway is knowing what to do with that swagger. Sway is influence. It's persuasion." In the context of this past weekend, Frank—a.k.a. "Lonny" to Auntie Watson—seems to have taken all of that advice to heart.

The modern version of turning the release of music into a massive, multimedia cultural event can be traced back most neatly to Kanye West.

If swagger was Ocean releasing Endless at the end of almost three weeks of video-streaming, sway is using that as the launching pad to establish his own record label. With Endless having fulfilled the New Orleans native's Def Jam contract, "Nikes," with its visual queerness and NSFW imagery, was the first release out of his newly independent status. Sway was convincing Apple of a new way to beat the sophomore slump by immediately launching a third album two days later and building out a coffee-table publication and opening shops to distribute them. Sway was taking a release and transforming it into a happening.

Frank Ocean isn't the only one to do this. The modern version of turning the release of music into a massive, multimedia cultural event can be traced back most neatly to Kanye West. With Yeezus, Ye premiered songs like "New Slaves" by visually projecting them onto buildings in cities like Chicago, Miami, and Los Angeles. Swagger was the new music—sway was pushing people to 66 locations across the US at different times to experience it. He's continued the approach, hosting a massive listening party at Madison Square Garden for The Life of Pablo in conjunction with his latest Yeezy fashion collection. There, fans could pick up the latest issue of his zine. With the controversial "Famous" video, West hosted viewing parties in various cities with times and locations announced on Twitter. All happenings.

Frank Ocean. From the album cover of 'Blond(e).' Courtesy of Boys Don't Cry

But when it comes to visual albums, Beyoncé has no doubt become the queen. After a bit of a trial run with B'Day, where she recorded the B'Day Anthology Video Album featuring 13 music videos, she outdid herself with her self-titled studio project. While it had attracted a flood of rumors prior to the release, much like Ocean's project, there was no explicit promotion by Bey. Swagger was the release of the music while sway was the ability to sell an album, in totality at a premium price with no promotion in the age of 99-cent singles on iTunes. She followed it up with the Emmy-nominated Lemonade, which debuted on HBO. That happening spawned fan-hosted viewing parties and a flood of headlines. But why do so many artists feel the need to go to these lengths for success?

One reason is the constantly evolving nature of distribution. Album sales numbers have lost out to the sales of singles, and those have lost out to a focus on streaming. To recoup some of their monetary losses, artists have been entering into exclusives; Kanye, Bey, and Frank have all employed exclusives in previous deals.

For Lemonade, after the film was released to HBO exclusively, the accompanying album was a Tidal exclusive. Once sale of the album saw a wider release, it remained as a stream exclusively on Tidal. Kanye, too, used Tidal to exclusively stream Pablo while Frank partnered with Apple, who some say even underwrote the cost of his zine. Even Rihanna, who gifted her album through Samsung and turned the album wait into a literal cellphone game (another recent if unsuccessful happening), did some exclusive streaming with Tidal. Although exclusives limit distribution, they can allow artists to benefit monetarily—Tidal offers better revenue than other music-streaming services—and build hype in a time of peak hype culture. All of which is an extension of why artists are forced to create happenings in the first place: It's hype all the way down.

In today's pop culture, 15 minutes of fame have been whittled down to a momentary blip on Twitter and the frenzied media cycle. Frank's own Endless release was overshadowed by the release of Blond(e)—mostly because it was a bigger happening. It includes not only a fully realized creative work but an experience that stays with fans. An experience to talk about, to Instagram, and to tweet about. That's what today's artists end up striving for to stay above the fray and make noise: Snapchat filters that are built around pop-up shops; Twitter moments constructed around visual-album releases. Happenings are how modern artists release music that makes enough noise to get the credit it deserves. It takes a little bit of swagger and a whole lot of sway.

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