Soulful innovator Frank Ocean has the habit of stretching out the time he takes between studio albums. Since 2011 he has only released three long-form projects to date: Nostalgia Ultra, Channel Orange and Blonde– with the latter being released almost four years ago.
Fans like me are buzzing for any indication of Ocean being actively involved in music.
At last year’s Camp Flog Gnaw festival in Los Angeles, organiser Tyler the Creator announced a special headliner whose identity was to be kept secret until his show. Knowing the man’s secretive tendencies, and the fact that he was a long-time collaborator with Tyler, the audience expected Ocean to appear, when in reality they were treated to the “mere” spectacle of rapper Drake – who was subsequently booed off the stage after a few minutes. Such has the frustration of fans built up over the past few years that they are willing to actively shun the best-selling artist in the world in a fit of pique.
I personally don’t blame them. By that point listeners had been fed two surprise singles in the last quarter of 2019 – “DHL”, a trippy stream of drunken consciousness cushioned between deep, distorted drums and trademark pitched-up vocals; and “In My Room”, a track with the kind of snappy trap snares and spliced synth notes which could have easily appeared on Travis Scott’s Astroworld. Although Frank does have the tendency to release singles on their own without leading up to an album (“Chanel”, “Lens”, “Provider” etc) I think that the sudden presence of two songs within two weeks strongly suggested that something was in the works. Hence the palpable frustration at Camp Flog Gnaw – as the prospect of more new tracks being performed or even an album announcement was crushed.
It’s hard not to see Ocean’s consistent appeal. One of his strengths is that he’s able to delve into a genre, bring the best out of it and weave these influences together successfully. It’s exactly why his two studio albums are ranked #10 and #1 respectively on Pitchfork’s Best Albums of the 2010s. On 2012’s Channel Orange, he breathed life into a lush, hybrid orchestration of 70s funk, R&B and baroque-pop that culminated in tracks like “Pyramids” and “Thinkin Bout You”. 2016’s Blondeshowcased more contemporary acoustic, indie rock and synth influences to create an apotheosis of angst. Standout tracks like “Pink + White” and “Nights” are perfect examples of instrumentation which fans wouldn’t have expected to hear after listening to Channel Orange, incorporating more sober, languid tones in contrast to the mostly upbeat, jazzy beats of the 2012 album. Somehow he manages to do all this without seeming like a culture vulture – rather than simply picking up a sound and repackaging it superficially, there’s always a meticulous level of craftsmanship.
And this is all notwithstanding his ability to in turn influence other trend-defining artists. The wistful self-reflection so endemic to his sound has certainly surfaced in up and coming R&B singers like Khalid and Daniel Caesar, but also in albums from more established figures – just take Lorde’s Billboard-topping second album Melodrama as an example. Drawing upon the themes of solitude all-too present in both of Ocean’s albums, it manages to incorporate a potent sense of uncertainty in the lyrics despite its more maximalist aesthetic (true to the project’s title). Arguably, The Weeknd’s 2018 album My Dear Melancholy tries to do the same thing, deploying the numb crooning and echoey drums from Channel Orangeto create a similarly brooding sound. Even fresh acts like Billie Eilish seem to be taking cues from the man. Her most recent 2019 single “everything I wanted”, with its ethereal strings and soft background hum, has that magical sedative power about it akin to tracks from Blondelike “Seigfried” and “Nikes.” In short, each work Ocean puts out has a significant cultural impact on the musical landscape around him.
It would be truly excellent if he does end up putting those skills to work again in 2020 with more genres of music, putting his own trademark style and spin on whatever end product comes out of his musical assembly line. What else is there for him to play with? Punk? Industrial? Techno? If Channel Orangewas Frank’s Late Registrationand Blonde was his 808s and Heartbreak, perhaps this next album may be his Yeezus: a brash, brooding project intended to recentre the artist’s talents that ultimately ends up bolstering a new sound. From the most recent sounds of the cavalier, melancholic “DHL” and “In My Room”, this may still be a possibility.
And having set the tone and pace for much of the 2010’s, I’m eager to hear the aesthetic which Ocean might be crafting for the new decade as we speak. He’s kept us waiting for much too long.