Frank Ocean Essentials
It’s not just that he’s an enigma or that he follows his own clock. It’s not even his style (which seems invincible), or the fact that he’s one of the few pop artists publicly navigating the frontiers of queer identity. It’s that Frank Ocean is one of those songwriters who manages to touch new and distant places in his audience’s imagination, a cartographer of intimacy and confession so intrepid and sensitive that listening to him can feel like eavesdropping on something private, maybe even inexpressible. Yet here he is, expressing it. Even in his early days as the quiet one in the LA hip-hop collective Odd Future, Ocean seemed possessed by a stoicism and emotional intelligence that was uncommon, luminous—the kind of guy who sees more than he says and doesn’t waste a word when he opens his mouth.
Ocean was raised mostly in New Orleans, and moved to Los Angeles in the mid-2000s; by 2009, he’d landed a contract with Def Jam, but couldn’t square the relationship with his ambitions and ended up releasing his first mixtape, 2011’s Nostalgia, Ultra, on his own. He was soulful, funny, understated, and poetic, the kind of writer who made fragments of the real world—a girl doing porn to cover tuition (“Novacane”), a dip in the ocean (“Swim Good”)—crackle with mystical significance.
From Kanye, Jay-Z, and Beyoncé on down, he gained a cult of followers. In 2012, he released Channel ORANGE, which veered from Stevie Wonder-style soul to string-led gospel and psychedelia, framing R&B as a kind of rarified art music. The writing got sharper, too—at once more pitiless (“Crack Rock”), more expressive (“Bad Religion”), and more surreal (“Pyramids”), weaving storytelling and social commentary with an offhand brilliance that has become Ocean’s trademark sleight of hand. After a four-year period during which news of his next move flitted around in the internet ether like myth, Ocean released two projects in a week, in August 2016: the visual album Endless and the more conventionally framed Blonde. If Channel ORANGE had sounded like Ocean opening up, Blonde marked a contraction, exploring meditations and internal monologue with a sound that often felt more like ambient music than R&B. In the few years following Blonde, Ocean shared a string of singles through his Apple Music show, blonded RADIO, each one its own miniature event. Whether turning inward or outward, Ocean continues to explore.