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27: Frank Ocean

Photo By Nabil Elderkin

"I'm Just A Guy, I'm Not A God..."

Much has been made and said about Frank Ocean’s music, personal life and conduct since his breakthrough over 10 years ago. He’s built a stellar reputation by making acclaimed music of high calibre, where journalists and fans throw all of the buzzword’s indicative of a special talent into their reviews, blogs and word-salad social media threads or posts. He is as gifted as they come, where the only direction he was destined for is high into the sky as far as your eyes can see. But nature did not spare Icarus, and it won’t spare Frank either.

We can all look back at the early 2010s with fondness. There was something in the air during and post-blog era, where the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Mac Miller (RIP), Charles Hamilton, and KiD CuDi were just some of the names that spearheaded a fresh new energy into music. Frank Ocean himself started working behind the scenes as a ghost writer, before landing a song writing deal at the back end of the decade prior. Teaming up with Tyler, The Creator and immersing himself into the Odd Future collective in 2009 would prove to be a symbolic turn of events, as OF and Frank’s ever-present fingerprints on this decade are arguably still seen and felt to this day.

From cryptic Tumblr activity to abstract designs, unique formations and cadences in their songs, or punchy art pieces and one-liners (think edgy statements that didn’t conform to traditional rules and laws of grammar that could be open to interpretation), it was an era defined by dropping impulse-led crumbs and letting the audience run with it. It was a laissez-fair approach to engaging with the world to which Frank Ocean has clearly been consistent with. Ironically, his billing and reputation as an avant-garde champion of progressive, modern-day music stays true to the very fabric of his nature.

Frank Ocean would grab our attention as a solo artist through the release of “Nostalgia, Ultra,” his debut mixtape and the first of three critically acclaimed bodies of work. It was also the first of three-genre bending and fusing projects. He’d be vocal about being boxed in the R&B category and stating that he created music to his own style. Quite a rarity since he’s only ever given 18 official interviews throughout his career. That same laissez faire approach was evident in a feud with Don Henley of The Eagles. Ocean responded to him in typical fashion, through Tumblr, with a statement that can be likened to a shoulder shrug. Being the cool, new guy on the block is an easier persona to manage when you have the swagger to accompany the anthems.

Fans only had to wait another year before the release of Frank Ocean’s official debut album, “Channel Orange.” It seems strange to say that he kept them at the edge of their seats, but taking his debut mixtape’s cultural impact into account, plus selective contributions towards Odd Future meant that the demand for an uninterrupted Frank on an extended play was at great haste. In true star style, Frank matched the hype with bombshells of his own. Not only did he continue to play by his own rules, but he’d also bare his soul for the entire world, letting us into the deepest corners of his personal life. His introspective song writing would paint pictures of the lives of American youths growing up in the digital age, with materialistic desires and sexual experimentation, of which his own personal anecdote would grab the most headlines and be a big talking point. Ocean would once again take to Tumblr to address arguably the biggest, most seismic piece of entertainment news of that decade up until that point.

Cover Art for Frank Ocean's "Channel Orange"

Frank had ultimately shown that he was no fluke. His reputation in the industry was that of a man that couldn’t miss. His resume was an envious one from both a personal and collaborative standpoint. He had credits with every name you could pull out of a hat, Kanye West, Beyonce, Justin Bieber, and so forth. By all accounts, he made a modern masterpiece with his album, but decided to slow things down and become the enigmatic, elusive, and entrenched figure we now associate him with. Perhaps he had pushed his boat out too far, in a sense that he did not expect to be placed under such a large microscope. Maybe there was some discord between his calm, lackadaisical persona, and the supernova status he had built himself by simply being himself. There are some parallels to Lauryn Hill, in so much as Frank Ocean appeared to be far too engulfed in something he did not want to be in. Was he becoming a victim of his own success? It would be a number of years before we’d really hear from him again, aside from a handful of social media teasers and hype.

The release of Blonde was accompanied by “Endless,” a visual album, and the “Boys Don’t Cry” magazine that would be issued at various pop-ups globally. The rollout for promoting his latest body of work showed Frank in full flow as an artist and creative in every sense, masterminding an impressive strategy. In another show of adaptation to and picking up influences from other genres, Frank Ocean would once again display how much of an outlier he is in the recording industry. Blonde would be a lot more minimalist in its sound, and Frank would turn the notch up on his efforts to maximise his journey of self-discovery and reflective demeanour. Five years after he pleaded not to be type casted or boxed in, Ocean had experimented with ranges of sounds that included funk, electronic and soul to formulate music that was utterly unique to himself.

And by all accounts, that was it, or that’s been it at least up until now. Frank Ocean has put some singles out since and has an Apple Music radio station where he teases the world with remixes of his work, whilst seldom touring and performing. It’s incredible to think that somebody with such a following and huge pull has just remained under the radar for seven years and counting. But right now, I believe Frank has arrived at a crucial crossroads in his career (crazy to think but hear me out).

Frank Ocean’s bag is in his song writing. It’s personal and unique. It’s very raw and vulnerable. With that, listeners can find him very relatable, or can feel an aura from his music where they can draw strength, inspiration, and other emotions from it. He ultimately lets us into his world and takes us through his journey, making us feel a certain level of comfort in his art. Furthermore, as an influential and plugged in person, he’s very on trend and defines our generation. His self-reflection on his choices, actions and sexuality gives the audience a keen sense of familiarity. Unfortunately, familiarity breeds contempt. This is in spite of the sense of mystery that surrounds him, nonetheless. In the last month in particular, we’ve seen the rough end of this stick rear its head for Frank in the public domain. His headlining of Coachella has split opinion to say the least.

By many accounts, the full set was chaotic, not only from his own standpoint but from the audience’s perspective as well. Whether it was logistical problems, technical issues or just an overall stressful ordeal for Frank to deal with, some of his fanbase didn’t want to afford him much room for sympathy or forgiveness.

"Frank could hand people a piece of poop on a gold platter and his stans would be like 'wow this is so abstract and profound'...”

To further increase his woes, he’s been a high-profile talking point around the use of artificial intelligence in the world of recorded music as well, where fans desperate for just anything new from Frank in the era of fast food music, were duped into purchasing AI Frank Ocean songs that were supposedly rare or unreleased.

It’s a problem that he’d rather not get dragged into, but are these two events in the past few weeks a sign of his quality, success, and personality, alongside his reluctance to conform to industry standards coming back to haunt him?

It’s possible that Frank Ocean is happy for things to stay as they are. For all purposes, it does seem like he is quite comfortable to do his own thing at his own pace. But the contempt we mentioned earlier has potential to grow and leave a lasting stain. For somebody who has a prominent level of artistic integrity, blending reality and surrealism, he may well revel in the fact that his movements cause such reverberations. Elusiveness and unpredictable patterns of engagement certainly built him up, but this decade has already shown itself to be completely different from the last. I hope to be proven wrong, but it may end up being his downfall when all is said and done, as opposed to what initiated his cult-like status.

Written by: @WhosAria

Edited by: @Arriver

Bars Of Wisdom

In collaboration with Insight.