With this year’s Grammy Awards ceremony quickly approaching, it’s around about now where anticipation peaks and we can’t help but speculate which of the nominees will be awarded for their storming 2016 and come away with one or two of those prestigious awards. Artists like Beyoncé and Chance the Rapper have enjoyed a sensational past twelve months, after releasing the two fantastic projects Lemonade and Colouring Book respectively, and are certainly considered favourites to clean up. With Ellis having already written an article on this year’s nominees, there were a few notable absences- one considerably more notable than the rest. Enter 29 year old born Christopher Edwin Breaux, or better known by his stage name: Frank Ocean.
In case you aren’t familiar with him, Frank Ocean is the Long Beach born; New Orleans raised singer/songwriter who, despite only 6 years on from his first project, has become the pacesetter in alternative R&B. Ocean’s career started initially with him acting as a ghostwriter, where he wrote songs for the likes of John Legend, Beyoncé and Justin Bieber. Dedicated to establish himself as an artist, he joined the likes of Tyler, the Creator and Earl Sweatshirt in rap collective Odd Future in 2009, as well as signing to Def Jam Recordings the same year. Odd Future’s youthful and off-the-wall spirit influenced his songwriting, and after a few collaborations with his new OF cohorts, Frank released his first mixtape, Nostalgia, Ultra, on the 16th February 2011. This project was met with critical acclaim, with stand out singles Novacane and Swim Good featured. As the title implies, lyrically, the project paints a picture of reminiscence, mostly recalling relationships and encounters with romantic interests Frank has found himself in. Nostalgia, Ultra also showcases the diverse palette of Ocean’s influences, sampling instrumentals from Radiohead, MGMT and The Eagles.
It only took Frank Ocean a year to return with new music, in the form of his first commercial record: Channel Orange, released on the 10th July 2012. Much like Nostalgia, Ultra, this record follows themes of youthfulness; the title Ocean derived from a synesthetic colour he associated with the summer he first fell in love, a story which is explored in further depth in lead single Thinkin Bout You. Unlike his first mixtape, where sampling existing work is standard custom, Ocean took a more hands-on approach to songwriting, involving himself more with the structuring and sonics of his songs. What resulted was quite possibly one of the greatest debuts any musician has offered in recent years. Channel Orange is a neo-soul masterpiece, saturated with unrelenting R&B grooves straddled over trendy 808 drum patterns. The brilliant musicianship on display is equally met by Ocean’s phenomenal lyricism and storytelling: from the fickle, affluent blues of tracks like Super Rich Kids, to the emasculated love song Forrest Gump, a track, much like Ocean’s lead single, which provided insight into his sexuality, making headlines around the world when he came out as bisexual- akin to the publicity David Bowie garnered when he did the same, which, combined with his inventive, genre-defining work at the time, made him such an unstoppable force in the music world. Critics have also likened Ocean’s vivid depiction of one’s formative years to that of Brian Wilson with The Beach Boys’ 1966 album Pet Sounds, perfectly captivating today’s youth. By the end of the year, various publications, including Billboard and The Guardian, placed Channel Orange first in their Albums of the Year lists- as well as earning 4 nominations at the 2013 Grammy Awards, for Album of the Year, Best New Artist, Record of the Year (Thinkin Bout You) and Best Urban Contemporary Album- winning the latter award, as well as earning an award in the Best Rap/Sung Collaboration category for his contribution to Jay Z and Kanye West song No Church in the Wild.
Still enjoying the resounding success of his first LP, it was around this time that Ocean confirmed that he had begun writing a follow-up. After finishing touring Channel Orange in the second half of 2013, Ocean slipped away from the public eye to continue working on his second album, supposedly titled Boys Don’t Cry. As more time passed, tensions grew among fans who were anxious to hear new music, but Ocean’s seemingly brief hiatus had turned into a full on disappearing act. This silence was briefly interrupted in early 2014, when he posted the song Hero to SoundCloud, as well as Ocean insisting that LP2 was nearly finished. Despite this, almost 2 full years passed without any real sign of a release, before hip hop giant Kanye West released his seventh studio album The Life of Pablo in February 2016. This contained the song simply titled Frank’s Track, a stripped back outro to the preceding track Wolves, which featured the man himself, Frank Ocean. Excitement erupted at his return and the glimmering hope of the release of his desperately anticipated follow-up album, as numerous hints emerged through the year that Boys Don’t Cry was to be released very soon. As months passed, I couldn’t help but still feel pessimistic- with rumoured released dates slated for the past two years without any response- but on the 19th August 2016, a 45 minute long visual album titled Endless was streamed on his website and uploaded to Apple Music. Frank Ocean was well and truly back. It’s fair to say Endless is an unusual body of work, with no adherence to individual tracks. Sonically, by no means is this a purist’s R&B album. Instead, Ocean opts to take an avant-garde twist on pop, particularly through the use of spacious soundscapes and bizarre sampling. Despite its untypical presentation, this album was still one of my favourites of the year, displaying Frank’s incredibly gifted voice in a perfect light, including the opening track, an enamouring reinterpretation of (At Your Best) You Are Love by soul legends The Isley Brothers. Endless is a shapeless, assorted banquet of intimate tunes that I can’t help but go back to again and again.
However, we only had a matter of hours to enjoy this new release before representatives of Ocean stated that Endless was not the project supposedly titled Boys Don’t Cry, and that we should expect even more music imminently. In a new found honesty to his word, Ocean finally released his second studio album, titled Blonde, as well as a music video for lead single Nikes, on the 20th August 2016. Blonde is without doubt one of, if not the most widely anticipated album of this decade so far, so it isn’t unreasonable to suggest that there was a possibility that all this anticipation could have resulted in a total anti-climax; many artists before Ocean have experienced the “difficult second album” and his second release could end up being a sub-par response to such an exciting and promising debut. This is not the case with Blonde, under no circumstance. This album is very much a slow burner, Ocean doesn’t rely on anything particularly exciting to seize your attention, but songs become precious after a few listens. Unlike the more orthodox grooves and hooks heard on Channel Orange, Blonde finds its strength in simplicity when it comes to production. The abstract and minimalist instrumentals on this album at times remind me of the sound The xx honed on their stunning debut xx, highlighting Ocean’s departure from the obvious in popular music. This change in style doesn’t remove anything from the album’s identity- this is still very much a Frank Ocean record, his familiar nostalgic narratives are still strongly featured on here, yet the sense of naivety you find on Channel Orange has long gone, with Ocean sounding a much more mature artist both vocally and lyrically. A long list of renowned artists have also been credited for their contributions to the album, including Beyoncé, Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, André 3000, Kanye West and Jamie xx. Despite this, these featuring artists are not utilised conspicuously, as the limelight seldom moves away from Ocean at any point throughout. Blonde thrives on its ambiguities and presents an ambitious view into the mysterious mind of its creator, as well as marking bold steps into the progression of popular music. But most importantly, if Channel Orange was the record that made him a big player within alternative R&B, then Blonde is the record that proves that the name Frank Ocean should be on all of our lips for many years to come.
This leaves us with a few questions: Why did he take 4 years to release two pieces of work at once? And if Endless and Blonde are so good, then why isn’t Frank nominated for any Grammy’s this year? As I mentioned previously, Frank Ocean signed a record deal with label Def Jam, a deal he saw fulfilled with the release of Endless. Although, Ocean had made attempts to part company with his label before this, describing his experience with them as a “7 year chess game”. After having to buy himself out with his own money, he finally managed to part with Def Jam, and Blonde was released on Ocean’s newly formed independent label: Boys Don’t Cry. This suggests that Ocean’s plans for a follow-up to Channel Orange were possibly too bold and left-field for Def Jam to oblige releasing, hence why his visual album was put together to break away and release a second LP on his own terms, demonstrating that not only should art not be rushed, but it should not be limited by a third party. As for the Grammy’s, it turns out Frank Ocean wasn’t snubbed by the awards ceremony at all- more the other way around. Reports came out in October 2016 that Ocean’s albums were not submitted in time for consideration at this year’s ceremony, sparking protests from fans, and even Ocean’s contemporaries; our favourite rapper/enfant terrible Kanye West took to the stage at one of his shows and declared his threats to boycott the 2017 Grammy’s if Ocean’s work remained ineligible. However, a rare interview with The New York Times revealed that Ocean actively chose not to submit his work for consideration, quoted saying: “That institution certainly has nostalgic importance; it just doesn’t seem to be representing very well for people who come from where I come from, and hold down what I hold down.” The interview goes on to discuss an asset of Frank Ocean’s identity that is possibly his most integral: his polite, yet categorical refusal to remain in the spotlight. His name may hold a decent amount of weight in popular culture- in the United States, Blonde enjoyed the third-biggest opening week for an album in 2016, beaten only by Drake’s Views and Beyoncé’s Lemonade– but he isn’t a megastar like them. Frank Ocean is an enigma; every move he makes is shrouded in the unknown. There is one thing I can be certain of, though: it’s a pleasure to have you back, Frank.