Frank Ocean’s new album hysteria proves he's the new Lauryn Hill — for better or worse
Call them hacks. Call them assholes. Call them geniuses. Nearly every decade of pop music has at least one visionary who's impossible to trust, but impossible to ignore.
In the '60s, it was Brian Wilson, who alienated swaths of the Beach Boys' fans when he swerved their up-tempo surf bops into troubled, conceptual symphonies, before all but vanishing from the band's songwriting. In the '90s, it was Lauryn Hill, who released one achingly beautiful masterpiece and has done little but flake and test her fans' patience ever since.
Today, our aloof mystic, who couldn't give less of a fuck about whether you listen or not, is Frank Ocean.
On Friday, R&B's golden child dragged fans through yet another hours-long carpentry session. Many fans stayed up late into night with him, waiting to see how prompt Ocean planned to be on his rumored Friday release date. Midnight, one o'clock, three o'clock came and went with the stream playing nothing but white noise and the occasional off-camera cough.
Fans erupted in fury — but what were they expecting? A predictable, clean, timely release? What about this album rollout has been any of these things? Moreover, what occurrences in Frank Ocean's career have ever been any of these things? Yet he's still managed to command more attention and fascination with every passing year.
He hasn't been doing anything different since when he started. If you're furious, that's on you.
Ocean popped at a time when R&B's leaders, Chris Brown, Trey Songz and Flo Rida, were racing to craft sleek, sex-first, questions later jams. Ocean took a different tack, writing about suicide, his absent father and the doubts surrounding his messy Coachella hook-ups on his debut mixtape Nostalgia Ultra. He dabbled in bluegrass and classic rock while borrowing plenty of Odd Future's lo-fi grime, with whom he was still loosely affiliated.
"I wasn't trying to make a record that people could relate to," Ocean told Complex of the tape that first hooked attention from the music industry. "I was just trying to make a record with the shit that I wanted to express. The shit that I wanted to get off my chest."
With that tape, and Channel Orange after it, he put a massive crack in the wall of artifice that separated celebrity from audience in pop. What he revealed was himself, an artist just trying to make beautiful, personal music, often at the expense of his popularity and accessibility. He's doing the same today.
It sucks to be ghosted, though, and it's hard to completely discount the feelings of all those rooting for Frank who now feel betrayed. However, ghosting is a post-Y2K, smartphone era concept. Ocean is not of this world, and appears to have little to no interest in joining it. He has no Twitter; he big-ups '70s psych acts like the Beach Boys and Jesus and Mary Chain as his influences; he still uses Text Editor.
It's created an enlightened, monkish mystique around the artist that imbues each statement with a thoughtful and rare glow. Many of his past collaborators have taken to try to co-opt some of this shine. "Ocean carved out a place for introspective and ambitious R&B that wasn't a slave to the Top 40," Priya Elan wrote for the Guardian. "You could argue that the albums that are likely to top the 2016 'best of' lists (Rihanna's Anti, Beyoncé's Lemonade, Drake's Views and West's Life of Pablo) owe a conceptual debt to Ocean."
As frustrating as Ocean's current charade may be, this is the artist setting a new agenda — a release schedule that's not tied to the 24/7 constant surveillance culture we live in. If history has proved anything, it's that demands of fans and fame break artists, and patience nurtures them.