After nearly four years out of the limelight, Frank Ocean returned a couple of weeks ago with not one but two full albums, Endless and Blonde, along with a full-length visual accompaniment for the former. In addition to allowing fans to breathe a collective sigh of relief, they also highlighted a peculiar quirk on the part of the press, one that seems to surface every time a superstar releases an album these days. Before people even had time to listen to the records in their entirety, publications raced to accumulate a list of the hip, indie-leaning young artists and producers who'd made Frank Ocean's long-awaited new albums possible. We know how this works.
Poring over the album credits that appeared at the tail-end of Endless—as well as the exhaustive list of collaborators and musical and lyrical inspirations Ocean included in the zine he published alongside the release of Blonde—the press would uncover that the records included the assistance of rapper and producer Tyler the Creator, singer-songwriter James Blake, and producers Arca and Jamie xx, among other critics' darlings. Before long, big-name outlets published interviews with some of the more curious players on the album, like SebastiAn and art photographer Wolfgang Tillmans. Using high-profile producers and guests has long been a staple of the A-list album, but the vast roster of collaborators on Blonde and Endless seemed at first glance to push that idea to a fever pitch.
In some ways, Kanye West set the template for the the current version of the pop star as tastemaker with his overstuffed 2013 opus, Yeezus. He'd been enlisting outside help his whole career, but the sessions for this record took on an almost mythical quality, with dozens of players and producers flying out to work on the record together and separately. Tracks like "Blood on the Leaves," "I Am a God," and "Hold My Liquor" bear the distinctive traits of their producers (Arca and Hudson Mohawke, among others), producers whose sounds are so unique that they can't be confused with anyone else. Arca's piercing maximalism can sound both aggressive and gorgeous. Mohawke makes pounding, multi-layered, synth-driven beats that lean heavily on hip-hop and trap elements. These tracks sound like the sum of those components, and the record as a whole functions similarly. It's a diverse group of producers spanning styles and approaches, but it can feel as if the cast was collected to call attention to the size of Kanye's record collection.
But with his guests on Endless and Blonde, Ocean does more than merely demonstrate his carefully curated taste, or create an amalgam of the world's most hyped sounds. While Jamie xx's production on Drake's "Take Care" and Arca's shattered contributions to Yeezus seemed to adopt the sounds of their collaborators wholesale, Ocean is able to utilize those same producers' specific skills to help realize a vision that is distinctly his own. It's alchemy, rather than assemblage. They aren't strictly R&B or hip-hop or pop, but a bleed between genres, taking from different styles all at once.
He didn't always work like this though. Channel Orange was a catchy sampler of Ocean's interests in R&B, hip-hop, and funk. The record bore less contributors, but their presences were more visible. Audiences immediately recognized John Mayer's guitar playing or Earl Sweatshirt's dazed flow or Andre 3000's staccato vocals. But Endless and Blonde, both upend that usual way of working. He still brings other producers into the fold, but now he uses their touch gently, in service of the general fragility that dominates the record. They support rather than define the sound.
James Blake adds synthesizers to a cover of the Isley Brothers' "(At You Best) You Are Love" on Endless. But his contribution is minimalist—the low-register vocals and florid piano parts that are his signature are nowhere to be found. Ocean's free to strip the original of its sensuality and energy, to turn it into a contemplative, desperate and uncomfortable plea without having to worry that a guest will take up any of the space in the spotlight. Blonde develops similarly. "Ivy" was produced by Jamie xx and ex-Vampire Weekend multi-instrumentalist Rostam Batmanglij, but it doesn't sound like straight-forward indie pop—as you might expect from Batmanglij's other work—nor reinterpretations of house and UK garage, as you might expect from Jamie. Instead, it has a singer-songwriter quality to it, as if the track was composed solely on an acoustic guitar strumming listlessly, each shimmer of electronics added gracefully in service of the starkness.
Even the tracks that are very clearly led by Ocean's guests are in line with the musician's murky overall vision.Photographer Wolfgang Tillmans appears twice on Ocean's Endless, but his voice echoes more like a monologuist than that traditional guest vocalist. When Ed Banger founder Busy P announced that SebastiAn had lent his chops to Ocean's new album, no one anticipated the French producer would appear on a track like Blonde's "Facebook Story." Like the Tillmans track, he is not a featured vocalist. "Facebook Story" is a monologue with instrumentation—and SebastiAn's signature electro house are excised entirely. Their voices are present and advance the themes of the record—the power of technology and our weird interactions with it—without overwhelming Ocean's own voice.
SebastiAn expressed a similar sentiment in a recent interview with Pitchfork. "Considering that somebody in particular did something on this album is kind of out of the general concept," the producer began. "To me, Frank conceptualized the process of the album as you build an incredible building. He was the architect, and everybody was working with him to make it happen. The concept was more about focusing into the result, not about who did what. It's personal, but I felt that everybody was here for the project, for the music, the energy, not especially for themselves."
In the Boys Don't Cry zine he released in conjunction with Blonde, Ocean includes a list of his favorite songs. His list, which featuresa mix of electronic artists like Daft Punk ("Something About Us"), Aphex Twin ("aisatsana "), and Kraftwerk ("The Man Machine"), is an important clue into the development of Blonde. The scope of Ocean's listening is broad, seemingly more representative of a voracious appetite for whatever sounds good to him than whatever is cool to everyone else. And if all of these influences can come together to please the ear of someone like Ocean, it makes sense that he would mimic this of consumption in his own work.