There was a time when it was an open question whether Frank Ocean would ever release music again. After dropping his scintillating debut album, Channel Orange, in 2012 and performing “Forrest Gump” at the Grammys, Ocean retreated from the spotlight.
Keeping in the tradition of inscrutable artists of the past like Andre 3000 and D’angelo, Ocean became a musical unicorn. He would release a stray Tumblr post every now and then. A half-finished leak would surface on YouTube a year later. He’d also tease an album and magazine collaboration (then known as Boys Don’t Cry) that would eventually become Blonde.
Ocean’s reclusiveness became a running joke of sorts on Twitter and the blogosphere. The cacophony may not have had the desired effect (as Ocean suggested on the track “Futura Free,” he isn’t on your schedule) but its visibility certainly made an impression on Ocean. In a Tumblr post a day after releasing his sophomore album, Blonde, in August of 2016, he offered a bittersweet nod to the more impatient of his devotees.
“Thank you all,” Ocean wrote. “Especially those of you who never let me forget I had to finish. Which is basically every one of y’all.”
Why did Frank Ocean disappear for nearly four years? A rare interview he granted with New York Times journalist Jon Caramanica in November offers some insight into the mindset of an artist who many believed was having his own Dave Chappelle moment, but whose intentional obscurity was as strategic as it was cathartic. In 2013, after tiring of living ensconced in the celebrity culture of Los Angeles, and becoming worried that people close to him were stealing his money, Ocean left and flew to London, a city where he had never lived before.
“I had, in the midst of all of this, this feeling of isolation,” Ocean said. “Within my circle, there was a lot of places I thought I could turn that I felt like I couldn’t turn to anymore.”
Ocean wasn’t just seeking personal release. He was also in the process of replacing his entire management team, and engineering a creative split from his label Def Jam. When he was asked by Caramanica if it felt like he was running away, Ocean rejected that characterization, responding that pushing the pause button on his career was necessary to find self-determination in his own life and regain the self-control he had lost.
“It started to weigh on me that I was responsible for the moves that had made me successful, but I wasn’t reaping the lion’s share of the profits, and that was problematic for me,” Ocean told the Times. “[So] I never thought about it like that. I always thought about it like, if your house is on fire, you need to get out of the house.”
Four months since his Times interview, with the afterglow of the acclaim for Blonde beginning to fade, Ocean has emerged triumphant. He’s appeared on a trio of songs that are poised to position him as one of the major contenders to soundtrack the summer of 2017. In February, he surfaced to take over Calvin Harris’ breezy single “Slide,” which also featured Migos; in March he released a solo record, “Chanel;” and last week he dropped a collaboration with Tyler, The Creator and Jay-Z titled “Biking.”
While Ocean’s old music may be just as good as his new music, he’s never sounded this genuinely buoyant or content (Channel Orange’s “Sweet Life” might be the notable exception). All three songs represent a stark thematic and lyrical contrast to both “Channel Orange” and “Blonde.” Ocean may have told the Times that “it’s not essential for me to have big radio records,” but his recent output suggests he’s comfortable embracing the role of pop sensation and damn good at pulling it off. “Slide” may technically be a Calvin Harris song, but from the moment Ocean brags that he might buy Picasso’s “garçon a la pipe,” his laid-back croon defines the record. His blurry, intoxicated verses are playful and flirtatious where seductive records of the past like “Lost” and “Pink + White” were also sharp, yet reflected a deeply conflicted and uncertain disposition. For a while, it felt like Ocean was a bit lost in his own head, standing at the corner of the party, nodding and smiling, but not completely feeling the vibe. Ocean spurned duplicitous lovers on “Pink Matter” and lamented over lost relationships on “Thinking About You” and “Self Control.”
Now, Ocean is a sad boy no longer. And on “Biking,” with his “arm stretch a tee like I nailed it,” he’s never sounded so liberated. Backed by a strumming guitar lick that would sound entirely out of place among the sparse and lilting piano arrangements on Blonde, Ocean rides “shirt in the breeze like I’m sailing.” Ocean effortlessly switches flows, borrowing from Future’s slurry murmur and Young Thug’s polysyllabic yelp, showcasing his underrated rapping ability, unconcerned with coming off as cliche. You can almost hear Ocean smiling in ecstasy as he chirps incoherently at the end of the track.
It’s unclear what the future will hold for Ocean. In his interview with Caramanica, Ocean said that he was toying with the idea of getting a visual arts degree from the New School. Will he pivot from critical darling to a full-throated embrace of pop superstardom like the Weeknd (it’s hard to listen to House of Balloons and Starboy back-to-back and contend that it’s the same artist both times)? Are these singles just a tease until Ocean fades to black once again, content to live his life on no one’s schedule but his own for a few years? Blonde had no clear radio single, and seemed almost deliberately crafted to reject the fame that Channel Orange brought Ocean’s way. Even if he’s now developing records that resonate with pop radio, it’s likely Ocean will do so on his own terms, as he has with everything he’s ever done.
As one might learn from experience, it’s not worth trying to predict what Frank Ocean will do next. But one thing’s for sure. He finally sounds at peace.