Frank Ocean changed stardom in 2017, but it’s only the beginning
THE INTERNET MADE FAME WACK…
and anonymity cool.
- Frank Ocean, 2011 via tumblr
Frank Ocean has spent the past 12 months evolving, practicing this mantra. The scattered pieces of his image — the limited appearances, the cryptic tumblr posts — are all still here, Frank has just rearranged them. Without the higher powers looming over his every move, he has refined his image and taken full control of his persona. And his legacy is still developing.
In the space of a few days in late August, 2016, he ducked out of Def Jam with a middle finger to the man with the blurred release of Endless and immediately reaped the benefits of his newfound independence with Blonde, releasing it through his own label, Boys Don’t Cry. The seeds he planted there — ideas of a controlled, pure artistry — proved only further beneficial. Nurtured in the comfort of his own free will (and a with a little help from Apple Music) he took the year by storm by debuting his spontaneously-unfolding blonded RADIO project, a creative outlet kept open throughout the show’s warping seven month, seven episode run. In 2017, we saw Frank Ocean evolve into a spearhead for the perfectionist popstar, a continuation of ideas percolating since last August; reclusiveness for the sake of purity, perfectionism embodied.
Frank prefaced the nature of his post-Endless, post-Blonde career in an interview with The New York Times on November 15th, 2016. In an earnest and introspective exchange, he reflects on the time that’s passed since his debut, channel ORANGE; the search for new beginnings drenched in a more focused, self-orientated way of living; and outlined the direction he wants to follow looking forward:
“Because I’m not in a record deal, I don’t have to operate in an album format … I can operate in half-a-song format.”
February 24th saw the surprise reveal of blonded RADIO, a show on Apple Music’s Beats 1 digital radio station, in which Frank and his new blonded crew (Vegyn, Federico Aliprandi and Roof Access) took to the digital airwaves. blonded 001 — and each of the six episodes that followed — consisted of a two-hour mix of curated songs new and old, skits from the blonded crew and snippets of interviews, and ultimately became the defining feature of Frank’s “half-a-song format” proposal. A new single was to be found at the end of each episode, the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow curated entirely by Frank Ocean. There was no conventional album release cycle in sight, just a digital radio show with handful of scattered singles that gave Frank a testing ground for a variety of new sounds: all magic.
Seven episodes gave us seven new songs. Four of these were Frank singles (”Chanel”, “Lens”, “Biking” and “Provider”), but the remaining three marked a different case. Calvin Harris’ “Slide” on blonded 001 unveiled the first hint of a more active Frank, followed by our first full cut with “Chanel” on blonded 002. The stacked “Biking (feat. Jay Z & Tyler, the Creator)” followed suit on blonded 003, with a weekend in late April dealing out both blonded 004 (“Lens”) and blonded 005 — the first hint at an official CDQ Endless release with a remixed cut of “Slide On Me”, featuring Young Thug. The songs of blonded RADIO find themselves musically in the space between both of his 2016 releases: the raw, unstructured experimentation of Endless, melded with the melancholic glitz and glamour of Blonde. For blonded 006, Frank gifted a solo version of “Biking” and hopped on the long-teased A$AP Rocky posse-cut “RAF” alongside Playboi Carti, Quavo and Lil Uzi Vert. This remains the outlier of the group, though the track isn’t without its Frank Ocean charm. “Provider” wrapped up blonded 007 with a return to Frank’s character sensuality, a wispy dreamscape high strung. Seven new songs gave us seven new sounds.
“2016 burned some discs / 2017 ideas playing off a Walkman”, Frank raps on “Chanel” as the track begins to fold inward. As if signposting the remainder of his 2017, “Chanel”, blonded RADIO’s first solo track, finds Frank in reflection: the disc burning of 2016 an acknowledgement of the cohesive releases of Blonde and Endless; the Walkman as an analogy for both the musical breadth of blonded RADIO and the more diverse and less cohesive single releases of 2017 that were to follow.
Perhaps most thrilling about Frank’s blonded catalogue is that each of his singles sports a wildly different album cover in complement to their sound, a mixed bag of fonts and graphics and rhythms. The cover for “Lens” interpolates a great Kerry James Marshall painting, while “Provider” just overlays a washy pink-blue gradient across a photo of someone holding a bag of donuts. This is a medley of new music dressed in an assortment of aesthetics coming from a notoriously idealistic artist, someone who ultimately values consistency. Frank is a clear-cut perfectionist: that these songs aren’t as sonically connected as anything on Blonde — the songs are hardly sonically connected in themselves — is a demonstration of his teased "half-a-song format". It’s hard to come by a beginning, middle or end on “Provider”, especially with the five different versions that floated around on repeat at the end of blonded 007. “Lens” seems to fade out just as it’s starting to heat up, and a handful of blonded episodes even end with an unofficial variant of their debuted song with an added feature. These aren’t conventional features, though; the songs are already over. A$AP Rocky rides the coattails of “Chanel”; Travis Scott adds an abrasive side of autotuned flair to the end of “Lens”. Frank assembles an A-team and gives them only a tiny pocket of space to lend their talents; the micro-posse cut “Biking”, featuring both Jay Z and Tyler, the Creator, even has an official solo version. This is Frank operating at his own pace, Def Jam be damned.
Episodes of blonded RADIO may be scattered in a tangle of songs and skits and small moments of artistic transparency, but they never feel like distant, pre-recorded playlists. After coming off air, the tracklists are translated to playlists on Apple Music, but the full recording of the show is uploaded for later streaming too. The experience of these shows — whether you had the chance to catch them live or grace yourself with a re-listen — is unmatched, an art form in themselves. Dedicating hours to actively seek out radio content sounds wild in the year of our lord 2017, but think of it as a funky kind of podcast: a DJ mix where Frank’s appearances are proportionate to the time typically given to acknowledging advertisers. Frank’s obfuscated persona may not lend itself the same energy as your typical commercial radio presenter — nor does have the tendency to stick around for more than a minute at a time — but his moments of clarity expressed in off-the-cuff remarks among the musical decoration reveal a high-def glimpse of the mechanics of his newly developed philosophy.
blonded RADIO’s typical selection ranges from brand new releases to canonical singles from Frank’s idols. In an episode, you’re getting the latest dosage of A$AP Mob alongside a Frank Sinatra classic — and by some great act of fate, it works. The sounds of the old world gel perfectly with the new under the trusted hand of Frank as curator. When moments like these are experienced in conjunction with the endless online conversation and live game-threads that exist in pockets of Twitter and reddit, blonded RADIO feels like a sacred piece of fan culture. The show’s very existence feels like one for the fans — the cult (you’d be hard-pressed to find a Frank stan without a bootleg version of the A$AP Rocky cut of “Chanel” floating around in their iTunes library) — and never feels dissociative of its audience, but respective of a more spectral taste. The involvement in these temporarily-formed communities is tangible and lends itself better to fans who seek greater involvement with the music than a more casual fanbase. A radio show both curated by and showcasing new music from your favourite artist? Bliss; discuss. It’s as if Frank’s burning a tape for his crush, except it’s a tape that’s 14 hours, entirely digital, and we’re his crush.
Since the glorious month of August, 2016, Frank has traded in his absentia for another mode of mystery. He devoted his time away from the spotlight to breaking from the conventions he capitalised on to get there in the first place, putting his once firmly-defined R&B genre classification behind him and moving into a more technical, inventive sound. With Apple’s platform at his beck and call, Frank clearly has the opportunity to operate on his own terms; a visual album here, a two-hour long radio show there. On blonded 007 — what many suspect to be the final episode — Frank opened up about his direction post-Blonde. “Before I was done with it, I was telling myself I’ma do all these things when it’s done … I’ma go to school for a couple semesters … and I’ma learn something that’s, like, more technical and not so vulnerable”, he mumbles, as if confiding in himself. After letting the sounds of Sly & The Family Stone’s “Like a Baby” serenade the airwaves, co-host Vegyn reveals himself. "I mean… you built a spiral staircase, that’s pretty technically proficient", he offers. Frank Ocean — in true Frank Ocean fashion — replies: "That’s the thing. I can do more, and there’s more to come."
Moments like these work to enhance the mystery of the man; complementing the great vulnerability of his music is a persona bound to the shadows. Since that final blonded episode, he has already launched blonded RADIO as an indefinite radio station in Grand Theft Auto V, re-released physical copies of Endless, and run the magazine gamut with photographed covers for i-D and 032c. What correlates is a more devout, more intensive following. Frank has gone to great lengths to playfully emphasise a certain mystique with the duality that runs within in his persona, and in the moments that come to surface in the space between these two halves — though always in short and infrequent bursts — we are given an exploded view of the mind of the enigmatic genius. Through all his triumphs, it gives us a reason to continue to hold onto his legacy, to keep a sharp eye. The internet indubitably made fame wack, but anonymity has never been cooler since Frank became the flag-bearer for it.
“If you liked two thousand and seventeen then you’ll love two thousand and eighteen."
- Frank Ocean, 2017 via i-D