On August 20, 2016, over five years after being introduced to Frank Ocean through his acclaimed mixtape nostalgia, ULTRA, I found myself waiting in line for nearly two hours at the singer-songwriter’s Chicago pop-up shop. After having already waited four years for a follow up to his debut album Channel Orange, two hours standing in line for his new release, ‘Blond,’ and a physical copy of the Boys Don’t Cry magazine was a cakewalk. When I finally made it inside of the store and held that shiny (and surprisingly heavy) silver package in my hands, I felt a rush of peace and relief flow through my entire body. It felt as if I were reconnecting with an old friend, who no matter how long they had been away, I eagerly wanted nothing more than to sit down with them over drinks and ask them to share every detail about their trip. So when I finally made it home and put on my “special occasion” headphones, I did just that. I curled up on my couch and allowed Frank (we’re far past the formalities of referring to him as Ocean) to tell me all about his life and all he’d seen while he was away.
I entered Frank Standom (term for a group of borderline obsessive fans—see the Beyhive for reference) in spring 2011 as a sophomore in college. The often ethereal and seemingly shy Frank Ocean easily stood out for me amongst his contemporaries as the quiet revolutionary leading the pack of new indie R&B artists. With his enviable storytelling abilities and multiple references to Prince, I recognized much of myself in Frank; a young black mind who prefers to keep most of their thoughts to his or her self unless otherwise sharing them on their own terms. As a self-described introvert, my similarly shy exterior masked my own vivid imagination and reflections that I only freed when writing. When I listened to Frank or scrolled through his Tumblr, I felt validated and truly seen for one of the first times in my life. He masterfully put words and music to obscure musings and feelings I believed solely existed in my mind. Frank was like a beautiful secret of mine; an artist with an excess of potential and authenticity unaffected by celebrity. However, genius doesn’t stay secret for long and soon, it became trendy to demand more from the introspective artist I had grown to love.
With his enviable storytelling abilities and multiple references to Prince, I recognized much of myself in Frank; a young black mind who prefers to keep most of their thoughts to his or her self unless otherwise sharing them on their own terms.
Preceding the release of ‘Blond’, there had been countless rumors with inaccurate album release dates threatening Frank’s credibility. Many of Frank’s fans were tired of waiting for his next project and many of his critics argued that he was all hype and solely a one-hit wonder. With each potential due date passing, the stakes grew higher and higher. But, somehow, wading through all of the memes comparing him to a lying boyfriend swearing that he’s a changed man, Frank delivered a well-crafted, unrushed, and uniquely original project with ‘Blond.’
After spending the last few days listening to the album on repeat, my favorite aspect of the project is how Frank simultaneously manages to express growth while remaining true to the person his fans have come to love and respect over the years. Whether that be conveying his unmatched love for cars or his affinity for color motifs (he once posted on Tumblr that Orange reminds him of the summer he fell in love), Frank remains consistent to who he is and this is made apparent throughout the Boys Don’t Cry magazine and the entire ‘Blond’ album. He even gives subtle hints to his long-term listeners. In nostalgia, ULTRA, Frank, with an annoyed retort, mutters, “all you b*****s want is Jodeci” when talking to his presumed date(s) in his car after they frustratingly ask if he has any Jodeci to play. In “Nikes,” the intro to ‘Blond,’ Frank quips, “these b*****s want Nikes,” and with that remark Frank gives just the slightest wink to his day-one fans letting us know that he’s still the same Frank—only maybe receiving a much larger check.
But, somehow, wading through all of the memes comparing him to a lying boyfriend swearing that he’s a changed man, Frank delivered a well-crafted, unrushed, and uniquely original project with ‘Blond.’
‘Blond’ depicts a more confident and seasoned Frank who has a better understanding of his gifts and how to use and enjoy them. On the standout “Seigfried,” Frank sings, “Less morose and more present. Dwell on my gifts for a second.” Yet, there still seems to exist a lingering fear around fame and caution with sharing personal details outside of a musical context. On “Futura Free,” my favorite song from the album, in an almost freestyle rap voice, he croons, “[They wanna] murder me like Selena” referring to the beautiful and talented Tejano musician and performer murdered by the manager of her fan club just as her crossover career was set to take off. By equating himself to Selena, Frank acknowledges the potential for both physical and existential harm that accompanies his growing fan base and others having such high expectations around his music. With this comparison, it’s easy to understand his reluctancy with releasing new material and his decision to isolate himself over the past few years.
Then there’s the Beyoncé and Andre 3000 features. Frank, once again, garners nods from some of music’s greats and personally reclusive superstars who also tend to let their art speak for itself and then drift into the shadows once their tours and award seasons are over. Beyoncé provides majestic background vocals, beautifully complimenting Frank’s, in “Pink + White,” a song whose upbeat melody diverts your attention from the slightly darker lyrical content, a musical tactic often employed in Frank’s music. Then, Outkast’s more personally reserved half, Andre 3000, arguably drops the best rap verse of the year on “Solo (Reprise).” With his rapid and otherworldly flow, he shares his disappointments with the current state of hip-hop and the obsession with both trending and pretending.
Frank’s approach to constructing ‘Blond’ demonstrates an ample amount of risk-taking not just in songwriting but also overall musical selections with a focus on simpler production and the skillful experimentation of voice-changing effects. And while Frank repeatedly sings that he’s not brave on “Seigfried,” I’d beg to differ. He chose to avoid succumbing to pressure and released his project in his way and on his own terms. That level of steadfastness in a music industry where fans feel entitled to new material each year is admirable. ‘Blond’ is proof that bravery does exist without arrogance and is testament to the accomplishments one can obtain once they garner a true concept of self-awareness.
Some days, I don’t think any of us are worthy of a Frank Ocean. I worry that we won’t be able to carefully protect and respect his genius in a deserving manner. And these amongst other thoughts were echoing through my head as I stood in line at the pop-up shop, staring at the mostly college-aged and high school aged crowd around me. I wondered what their personal connection was to Frank. Did the wait make them anxious? Are their expectations of him unfair? But, rather than let my worries get the best of me, I instead chose to feel grateful that Frank continues to share his journey and stories with us all, as unworthy as we may be. Until next time, my friend. I’ll be listening.