Being Frank: understanding music’s most elusive man

As Frank Ocean continues to drop new music out the blue we take a look at how mystery has shaped our understanding of his music.

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Frank Ocean is arguably one of music’s most elusive artists recording today. For an artist who released his first studio album in 2012, performed at The Grammy’s and has worked with the likes of Andre 3000, Kanye West and John Mayer, it is remarkable to think that we know so little about him and the thought and precision that goes into his various bodies of work.

Cast your mind back to when Channel Orange came out. It was groundbreaking. Tales of unrequited love, lust and society sung softly behind a stark orange album cover. Although Frank had released music prior to this (mostly in the form of mixtapes), many would argue that the release of Channel Orange was his introduction to the world at large. With hits such as ‘Thinking About You’, ‘Pyramids’ and ‘Pink Matter’, there was definitely a hype around the former Odd Future member but also a mystery. Who was this man? Where had he come from? What was coming next?

Then came silence, and the birth of Frank as we know him today.

There was a four-year gap between Channel Orange and what was to become Endless and Blonde, and that is exactly what Frank Ocean needed to be the artist that he is today. Yes, there was the Isley Brothers cover (which would be heard later again in Endless) and other vocals that sprung up here and there, but everyone was still asking that pivotal question:

WHERE IS FRANK OCEAN?

At a time when social media is considered integral to any musician’s success Frank Ocean’s absence had become online gold dust. At times it felt as if coming back would ruin the novelty behind the idea that Christopher Breaux was gone. For four years the internet was asking questions as to what Frank was doing and where Frank was. There were moments when pictures of him would spring up and would send everyone into a frenzy when it happened. This whole idea of anonymity and the fact that we are not entitled to know the ins and outs of someone in the public eye were being carved during this time period and is still a concept people are getting to grips with today. While the world um’d and ah’d about their online etiquette, Frank knew that silence was the best way for him to let everyone know he was still around; keeping private in order to perfect his art. We just didn’t understand it at the time because we were all so caught up on hearing new Frank.

Four years later and where are we? Picture the scene: It’s the 19th of August, Endless has been dropped exclusively on Apple Music and this idea of the mystery behind the man was being honed. A stream of Ocean building something in what appeared to be an abandoned warehouse was continuously playing and no-one had a clue on what was going on. But the thing is, people all went crazy for it. It played into the questions that already surrounded him and proved that, try as they might, no one really understood him in the way that we understand many other established artists.

A day later, Blonde was released. This was Ocean’s first independent collection of music. It was bold, it was daring, it was different. It was smooth, it was rough and most importantly, it was unapologetically Frank Ocean. It featured the likes of Beyoncé, Kendrick Lamar, and Channel Orange contributor, André 3000, but none of these features ever overpowered Frank’s presence on the album. They were merely there to compliment the sound which added in making this album special. After years of speculation the people had got what they wanted but Frank had moved on. The privacy of his personal life had crept into his music and instead of Channel Orange’s bold declarations and attention-grabbing hooks Blonde was made up of subtle, understated tracks, placing an emphasis on Frank’s voice and honesty over pop appeal.

Months down the line he would speak out against the Grammy’s, release his free magazine that was only available in Blonde pop up shops (apart from his Black Friday sale) and appeared online once again to comment on the US General Election, all the while giving no indication of what was to come. In early 2017 Calvin Harris was seen teasing work he had done with Frank Ocean on Snapchat, and the next era of Frank was slowly being formed.

The release of ‘Slide’ was important for two reasons. Firstly it showed the world that even though he is an independent and enigmatic character, Frank works brilliantly with other artists, whether on his songs or theirs. Secondly it was released on the debut episode of Frank Ocean’s Beats1 show, ‘blonded RADIO’. In the time since ‘Slide’, Frank has gone on to use his ‘blonded Radio’ to drop both ‘Chanel’ and ‘Biking’, marking it out as a must-listen show in already packed Beats1 schedule. Those three releases beg the question: is Frank Ocean redefining the means of music distribution?

‘blonded RADIO’ has the potential to become really important in terms of future releases from Frank. We’re only three episodes in but already there has been a convention set: play a set of curated music then at the end of it all, release the new track. It is bringing out music in a way that has not really been done before. How much input into the show there is from Frank is unknown, but looking at how much effort he puts into his projects, it’s probably a lot. Although he doesn’t present the radio show in the conventional manner, he has made appearances on there in the form of an interview with Jay Z and various other soundbites; most recently the ‘Experiences’ skit. It would come as no surprise if ‘blonded RADIO’ and Apple Music feature heavily in the rollout of his next release.

It’s clear that Frank likes to play with people’s expectations. The world wanted an album so he gave them a staircase, he has a radio show that he doesn’t present, even the mere fact he collaborated with Calvin Harris, much maligned producer of Ellie Goulding-core EDM, was a fuck you to people’s idea about what Frank Ocean should be. He knows that his power lies in the unknown and the uncertain. Before Endless and Blonde came out he teased his fans with the now infamous “I got two versions” post on tumblr, prompting speculation that he had not one but two albums in the works.’Pyramids’ has two parts to the song, as does ‘Nights’. Even ‘Chanel’ has two versions; the original, and then the ASAP Rocky remix. Heck, go on Frank’s website right now. On the very top of the website, the trailer for his third Beats1 show plays Tyler, the Creator’s verse from ‘Biking’ but then goes on to play a verse that did not feature on Biking at all. Does this mean there are two versions of ‘Biking’ as well?

All this is to say that intrigue is what makes Frank Ocean the artist that he is. You’re not meant to understand him. He’s not that guy you can just google and get a complete rundown of his life. When every star is only a snapchat, Instagram DM or retweet away Frank Ocean’s almost-absence is what gives him power. It’s not a rejection of fame, it’s an experiment with it; a mystery that makes Frank, and his work, all the more human.

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