Image: Ben Thomson
Rappers and popstars exude confidence. Gospel singers channel the spiritual; R&B singers ooze sexuality. Frank Ocean, though, sounds uncertain. Four years between albums leaves a lot of time for personal growth — and just as much to second-guess yourself. If Frank Ocean’s sure of anything, it’s that he can’t settle on a single version of himself.
So he’s making us do the work. Between the livestream, the visual album Endless, two versions of Blonde, and the Boys Don’t Cry zine, it’s okay to feel overwhelmed. Do these releases live up to the expectations of channel ORANGE? Who cares? Don’t try to keep up — just shut up and listen.
“Nikes” is no typical lead single, but it’s become one by default — its sprawling Americana feels grander than the rest of Blonde put together. When you think of Frank Ocean, you immediately think of his voice — pure, raw, honest — but “Nikes” doesn’t give it to us for a full three minutes. Where’s the “real” Frank? Instead, we hear him pitched up high, like a chipmunk soul sample; and low, chopped and screwed. This is Frank Ocean’s America, and it’s as fractured as his voice.
The “Nikes” video opens on a loaded image — androgynous black bodies, lying unsatisfied atop piles of money. “These bitches want Nikes / They looking for a check / Tell ’em it ain’t likely”, sings chipmunk Frank — empathetic, sad, critical. He mourns the lost — “Pour up for A$AP [Yams] / R.I.P. Pimp C” — two proud rap hustlers even in death. And then, “R.I.P. Trayvon / That nigga look just like me”.
In a perfect world, everyone would enjoy the same luxuries. Instead, Trayvon Martin was murdered at 17. All black Americans, rich or not, have to live with some kind of fear. The kids want to be rappers, but Frank’s more like Trayvon than the other way around. So the rich assimilate, suppress their racial identity, distract themselves with the material things everyone else wants. The gap widens. No one needs expensive shoes, but can you blame anyone for wanting more than they have?
But Frank’s not judging — he’s no better. Expensive cars are all over his discography, from the “Nikes” video to the Boys Don’t Cry zine, where he writes, “Raf Simons once told me it was cliché, my whole car obsession. Maybe it links to a deep subconscious straight boy fantasy. Consciously though, I don’t want straight — a little bent is good.”
After “Nikes”, Blonde’s focus zooms in, and it never zooms back out. These days, Frank’s more outsider artist than popstar, and Blonde is a truly introverted work. These songs barely bother with verses or choruses. They’re short stories with no beginnings or endings; they bleed into each other like memories. Frank sings about past events — missed encounters, gentle regrets — like he’s driving past them in and looking in his rear view mirror. He can’t change the past, but few can bring it to life like he does.
Frank’s confessions aren’t strictly autobiographical — and we have no entitlement to them anyway. When he wrote about his first love — a man — on Tumblr in July 2012, we yearned to make Frank the next great queer icon — a modern Sylvester, perhaps. We wondered if he’d become a celebrity, date men in public — partly because the macho rap/R&B world could use more out role models, and partly because, even if we won’t admit it, we want the drama behind the songs.
But flamboyance isn’t Frank’s mode. He’s never explicitly labelled himself as queer or bisexual — instead, he’s quietly led by example. He doesn’t perform queerness, but there’s no question his sexuality informs his work. His songs overflow with feeling, but the details of his personal life aren’t ours to dissect. For most celebrities, privacy is a luxury. But for Frank, it gives him the freedom to define himself — a freedom we all deserve, in art or life.
Frank’s one of the most famous, most confessional singer-songwriters on the planet, but he never really tells you tangible about himself. It’s not radical honesty, exactly — his songs are far too subjective. Even on “Good Guy”, where he sings about an uncomfortable blind date, the song takes place in his memory, is seen through his eyes, narrated by his unreliable words. What did his date think? Does he even exist? There is no objective truth, and we can’t pretend to know the “real” Frank Ocean. These confessions are carefully composed, not to be taken literally, and a handful of probably a thousand other experiences he didn’t write a song about.
“Good Guy” ends mid-sentence. It’s an imperfect story, an incomplete song, a fragment of Frank’s unfinished life. As long as he’s reliving the experience, as long as someone’s listening to the song, the story never really ends.
As long as we’ve known him — since “Thinkin Bout You”, “Bad Religion” — Frank Ocean’s tried and failed, time and time again, to be an idealist. He’s a hopeless romantic who knows better, but believes anyway. He doesn’t sing declarations of love; he writes songs that wish they were love songs. As he’s grown older, he’s become more confident as an artist, but increasingly critical of himself in his songs. Blonde is about accepting the unknown. Nothing’s ever certain — you just have to learn to live with it. The album’s never finished, but it’s gotta come out eventually.
On the last track, “Futura Free”, Frank compares his days working minimum wage to his current lifestyle. Things have gotten better for him, sure, but he still wrestles with the same existential questions. Blonde feels like being in your twenties — optimistic, anxious, indecisive, all of the above. Hopefully, we’ll all have the freedom to live, make mistakes, choose our identities instead of having them thrust upon us. We rarely know the genders of the “you”s Frank sings to — are we entitled to that?
And yet, three versions of two albums later, we still don’t know who Frank Ocean is. He’s not faking his mystique — he doesn’t know either. That uncertainty is exactly what makes him great. Blonde means more because it took four years to record. Fuck schedules, fuck expectations, fuck your desire to gossip about his personal life. Who needs the truth when Frank’s giving us so much?
Richard S. He is an award-winning pop culture critic. People still don’t take him seriously. He tweets at @Richaod.