Frank Ocean Did It
On August 5, a new Frank Ocean album titled “Boys Don’t Cry” was supposed to be released on Apple Music. It wasn’t the first time this album was supposed to come out, and, as we learned by the time midnight struck that day, it wouldn’t be the last. I knew the album wasn’t going to come out that day. I don’t know how or why I knew, but I was very confident for every moment of the few days in between the New York Times article “Frank Ocean’s Long-Awaited ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ Is Due on Friday” and the expected release date that there would be no album.
When this actually came true, I stopped worrying about when or if the album would actually come out, and started to worry about Frank Ocean. Not about Frank Ocean the person, or even Frank Ocean the artist, really. I started worrying about Frank Ocean’s place in pop culture, and whether he would be able to sufficiently grasp the moment that he is currently in.
Ocean’s 2012 breakout album “Channel Orange” was the type of slow-burning cultural sensation that is becoming all the more rare and all the more worthwhile with every passing year. It was an immediate critical sensation, but wasn’t the type of art that could be mass-marketed. It needed time. It needed to allow people to discover it and develop their own personal relationship with it. It’s not the type of sensation that gets passed from friend-to-friend, but one that you discover on your own on the internet at three in the morning, when you sort of feel like you’re the first person to ever listen to it.
The way “Channel Orange” slowly picked up steam, steadily remaining a sensation and a successful album, all while never reaching over-saturation — it helped that it got robbed of a Grammy by some anonymous dudes with banjos — allowed Ocean a very special opportunity.
Take for example another slow-burn cultural sensation: Chance the Rapper’s 2013 mixtape “Acid Rap.” in 2013, I felt like I was the only one listening to Chance. By the time 2016 rolled around and he was ready to release his next full-length, it seemed like he was more popular than Eminem in his prime.
The opportunity Chance had with “Coloring Book” is the same one Ocean had with what once was “Boys Don’t Cry.” Chance dropped “Coloring Book” right on time — not a moment too late, not a moment too soon. And it wasn’t that good. I mean, it’s fine. It’s probably somewhere in the 20 best rap albums of the year, mainly because there usually aren’t many more than 20 good rap albums in any given year.
The amazing part was that the album’s quality didn’t change anything. It was a massive success with critics, and seemingly satisfied the desires of every Chance the Rapper fan except for me.
That was the opportunity Ocean had in July of last year, when he first announced he would release “Boys Don’t Cry,” and the opportunity he had again on August 5. And it’s the opportunity he declined.
Instead, Ocean lied on his release date, went silent for a year, referenced his lateness, then lied on his release date again. Out of nowhere, he released a visual album that wasn’t really an album at all, “Endless.”
This was the moment that I truly thought Frank had blown it. After all the performative hand-wringing and memeification over “Boys Don’t Cry,” it seemed like no one cared about “Endless” which, at the time, seemed like the new Frank Ocean album we had all been begging for via Twitter.
The release of “Endless” was accompanied by word that “Boys Don’t Cry” would still be released that weekend. But I didn’t believe that either. I thought Ocean missed his chance at the sort of crossover success that the Rapper had been granted just months earlier.
“Endless” is a puzzling, alienating, often beautiful piece of work. The visual element is more performance art than music video. The jarringly bright, excruciatingly long shots of Ocean building a staircase clash with the erratic, jumpy, somewhat incoherent musical elements of the release. When I first watched it, it made no sense.
Now we have ”Blonde” (what’s with artists changing their album names at the last minute this year?). And somehow, some way, everything makes sense when it’s on. The entire Frank Ocean experience of the last four years feels like it was about something now that we have this album.
It’s beautiful, sweeping, slow, and intimate. After all of the painful waiting, it is not the Frank Ocean album I wanted. The Frank Ocean album I wanted was filled with surprise radio hits, features from his many talented friends, and more of the skillful rapping Ocean has shown mainly through features in the past.
Talking about music in terms of seasons has become one of the overplayed music criticism cliches in my opinion, but for some reason it has been hard for me to avoid with this album. What I wanted was a summer Frank Ocean album. And in a way that’s what we got — but instead of a celebration of summer, “Blonde” is a reflection on summer. The love, the late nights, and the many mistakes.
Chance’s “Coloring Book” came out at the beginning of summer to tell us what we wanted to hear about the upcoming season. It would be a time of celebrating god, your family, your newborn daughter, and drinking all night.
“Blonde” has arrived to allow us to reflect on what this summer was actually like. Ultimately, the vision of summer “Coloring Book” offered was as hollow as its music was underwhelming. The summer was sad and weird and scary. “Blonde” allows you to weep away the fears and the disappointment of a failed season.
Now that we have this Frank Ocean album, I’m horrified that I ever wanted anything else, and embarrassed that I ever doubted him. There were plenty of questions and theories about why Frank insisted on delaying his album. Many people thought he just didn’t have an album, I personally thought he was just having fun.
When listening to “Blonde,” it becomes exceptionally clear. Ocean had no interest in skating off of his past success. He didn’t want to release an album that people would love before they even heard it. He even gave us “Endless” first to properly alienate everyone. He wanted a blank canvas. And on that canvas he put the album of the year.