What Frank Ocean Owes Us

Examining the responsibility of an artist to their fans.

August 03, 2016
What Frank Ocean Owes Us The FADER

It’s been four years since Channel Orange, and Frank Ocean — the New Orleans-born, Los Angeles-based genius recluse— is back. If reports are to be believed, Ocean will drop his sophomore album, Boys Don’t Cry, on Friday via Apple Music. He’s made assurances of a follow-up to his 2012 major-label debut before, so who knows if he will actually make good on his promise this time. What we do know, however, is this: Channel Orange’s influence and beauty has remained with us in Ocean’s absence. So much so that the album has fans, internet conspiracy theorists, and casual music listeners craving for any inkling of new music from the artist. Which raises a valid question: What does Frank Ocean actually owe us? Depending on who you ask, four years between albums is or isn’t a long time. Are our expectations of Ocean fair or deeply irrational? Ultimately, what is the responsibility of the artist to his fans? We gathered FADER staffers and friends to weigh in on the matter.

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ANUPA MISTRY: I’m not a particularly religious person but it feels like Frank Ocean’s had a spiritually significant impact on our lives. I consider nostalgia, ultra and Channel Orange divine offerings — statement albums that came at a time when hip-hop and R&B artists and fans were undergoing particularly notable ideological shifts with respect to genre boundaries, identity, and audience. Frank didn’t ask to be a messenger, but I believe he recognizes the sanctity of this work nonetheless. So whether the rollout for this third album is some calculated long game to preserve a reclusive aura or not, I deeply respect — or maybe feel protective over — his adherence to privacy and restraint in order to complete whatever it is that’s coming, whether it’s this Friday or never. There are a lot of lessons that faith tries to impart — patience, justice, etc. — and I think that, amidst the infinite scroll of our contemporary lives, Frank's made a new virtue out of quiet.

SAM HOCKLEY-SMITH: For years, I imagined that Frank Ocean’s brawl with Chris Brown happened in the parking lot of a Staples office supply store, not the Los Angeles Staples Center, where it actually went down. In retrospect, the Staples Center makes a whole lot more sense, until you remember that this is Frank Ocean we’re talking about, and him going to Xerox a bunch of copies of his zine that he never released, or going to buy a few more spiral-bound notebooks to write some lyrics doesn’t seem that far off.

That’s the thing about Frank, he comes off like a genuine, regular dude, who also happens to be way more smart and talented than most other genuine, regular dudes (no offense to any genuine, regular dudes reading this — let’s get a beer sometime). It’s for this reason that we put Frank on the hook for so much. It’s not actually that weird that he hasn’t released anything in four years. It’s not normal for a musician to wait that long, but it’s not like he’s completely upending the process of music making as we know it.

I have this theory that we’re all mixing up frustration with outrage. They’re similar enough emotions, but not really the same thing. Are we frustrated that Frank Ocean hasn’t released new music in four years, or are we outraged that he didn’t capitalize on his fame the way we hoped he would? It’s a little bit of a why-didn’t-I-think-of-that moment. Like, if Frank Ocean gets to break all the rules, why can’t I?

The answer is that I, we — or most of us, anyway — are not as talented as Frank Ocean, and breaking rules only appeals to those that didn’t really give a shit about them in the first place. The thing we tend to forget is that Frank, Earl Sweatshirt, and the rest of Odd Future had to weather the weight of a full media storm that was largely unprecedented at the time. We imposed narratives and tracked every move of these guys before they even had a chance to decide what moves they actually wanted to make. They broke rules just by not following the guidelines we set in front of them.

Frank Ocean has already given us two solid albums, a smattering of guest verses, and some great writing credits. We want Frank to be the artist we think we would be if we were in his place. He’s not us though, he’s him — which means that he can put a video of himself building some furniture or whatever it is he’s doing, and not only will we watch it, we’ll dissect it without admitting that the worst thing Frank Ocean could possibly do is what we all want him to do: play by the arbitrary rules we’ve created.

LAUR M. JACKSON: Frank Ocean doesn’t owe us a gotdamn thing. The false starts — some I inwardly doubt were ever instigated by the man himself — weren’t cool, but as someone often struck by the weight of a deadline there’s no judgment in this corner. The speed of the single has, in some sense, distorted a sense of music time that allows for breadth and contemplation — even just a break. We ask so much of black genius. Yet so rarely do black visionary artists disappoint. If Frank sees fit to have us in our feelings once more and bless us with another round of achingly sonorous vibes on Friday, best believe I will get me some. But I’m chill.

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JASON PARHAM: Almost minute by minute, I can conjure the night Frank performed at New York City’s Terminal 5 for the first time. I was surrounded by friends, all of us electric with joy, all of us attempting to escape the impending blue tint of morning: we wanted to live forever, to be there forever, frozen in the twilight of July 26, 2012. Such is the gravity of music that speaks to you and through you. Of course, what all of this means is: Boys Don’t Cry — if it ever arrives — will not live up to Channel Orange. Nostalgia is meant to be singular, and Frank’s responsibility as an artist is not to recapture what he bore four years ago. It is, however, his responsibility to create. We are owed an album. That’s a selfish, maybe even cruel, sentiment to admit, but music is a selfish endeavor built on reciprocity. So, yes: we need Boys Don’t Cry. And perhaps for no other reason than the fact that we are long overdue for a piece of art — something pure, vulnerable, forthright — that challenges us to wrestle with emotions long-buried and demons cast aside. It’s time for us to look in the mirror again.

MICHAEL ARCENEAUX: As a black man attracted to men, I do look to Frank Ocean to continue to lend a voice to those like me. It’s unclear how exactly he defines himself based on what little he’s said outside of his music, but he has acknowledged that his first love was a person of the same gender. For someone of the same generation who can’t really identify with the scant examples of queer black men presented in media and entertainment, it has meant, and always will mean, the world to me. Some view Ocean’s disclosure cynically, but I suppose everyone has the right to be shortsighted and unnecessarily conspiratorial.

Now that Ocean has shared that part of himself with the world through his art, I hope he builds on that. It doesn’t matter what he calls himself, but it matters that the world continues to see black men attracted to other men be whole. That is to say, beyond just love. To that end, I want to hear Ocean sing about boning a man, dumping a man, paying a man dust, and whatever else he’s felt along the way. I just think it’s about time we — those who can relate, those who can’t but aren’t bothered by it — have that. If Ocean isn’t the one to provide that, so be it, but I do find him capable, and very few can do it as beautifully as he can.

JENNA WORTHAM: I’ll be thrilled if Boys Don’t Cry comes on Friday, and I’ll understand if it's delayed — again. I don’t envy the role of an artist trying to make work during these wildly oversaturated times. There’s so much more stuff to process and everything is presented via the same compressed feeds, where it competes against boasts about Pokemon Go, depressing news about yet another police brutality, and the like. One of the ways we deal is through categorization: mentally swiping left on the things we don't want to pay attention to, and bookmarking the rest for later. It means that everything is graded the instant it comes out. Consumed, and then promptly forgotten. Albums, even the most exceptional ones, become artifacts almost as soon as they drop. We inhale them and quickly forget them. Our bottomless desire for new aesthetics and ideas feels like it’s spinning into hyperdrive, and, in a way, that might be thrilling for creators: there’s never been more opportunity to offer new feels to whet our bottomless appetite. We are all hungry ghosts, and with good reason. Soundscapes can function as portals and coping mechanisms, much needed relief during these trying-ass times. I’m just grateful knowing that Frank’s alive and making work at all.

What Frank Ocean Owes Us The FADER
What Frank Ocean Owes Us