Approved 2016: Frank Ocean
By Andy Malt | Published on Friday 16 December 2016
Every day this week in the CMU Approved slot, we’ve been looking at one of our five favourite artists of 2016. Today, Frank Ocean.
The story of Frank Ocean in 2016 has been a fascinating one, with many twists and turns along the way, and various elements that are yet to fully reveal themselves.
He began the year as a once hotly-tipped artist who had probably left it too long to follow-up his 2012 debut album. He’d been working on it for so long, how could it possibly live up to expectations? It almost seemed like a misstep that there was little hope of overcoming. Supposed release dates for album two had come and gone in the years since ‘Channel Orange’, and they continued to slip as 2016 went on.
Even when Ocean put out a mysterious video, which could be nothing else but a sign that the album was now finally imminent, reports that this was the case spooked him and he delayed full release yet again, keen to make sure that the element of surprise remained intact as much as possible.
Then finally it came. Not called ‘Boys Don’t Cry’, as had been originally announced, instead we had ‘Endless’, a visual album available only to stream on Apple Music – where it exclusively remains to this day. But wait, a rep for Apple let slip as that piece of work went live, there’s more.
And more there was. Just 24 hours later, Ocean released another album: ‘Blond’. Or ‘Blonde’, no one seems quite sure. An album in the traditional sense that it was a collection of audio tracks, it also began as an Apple exclusive, though eventually made its way out into the wider world.
There are many reasons to pay close attention to this, not least the ingenious scheme behind the release of both albums. Prior to their release, Ocean had replaced his entire team, worried about how his affairs were being managed. And then he negotiated his way out of his record deal with Universal’s Def Jam.
He would deliver one more album to the major, then he would be free. Though it’s still not entirely clear if the label fully understood that that one more album, ie ‘Endless’, would be immediately superseded by the self-released ‘Blond(e)’.
Universal played down the drama, though the development coincided with an internal declaration from the major’s top guard that exclusivity deals between labels and streaming services were now officially “a bad thing”. Which may have or may not have been related to the fact Apple money had enabled Ocean to stage such a quick and high profile release of ‘Blond(e)’.
Universal did get itself a new Frank Ocean album to release though, and arguably it’s the better of the two (though it’s a tough call). The final twist in this story may as yet come if and when ‘Endless’ gets a full release unlocked from its ‘visual’ status and Apple exclusivity arrangement. Ocean could get away with releasing two albums at once, but then also benefit from having separate campaigns for each of them a year apart. There is no reason why ‘Endless’ shouldn’t be the album of 2017.
Because beyond the business dealings and misdirection that got these two albums out into the world, the most important thing to note is their quality. The production and songwriting on both are incredible. Which means, not only did he overcome fears he couldn’t meet expectations with a second album in 2016, Ocean met expectations with both a second and a third long player, whatever the official status of ‘Endless’ may be.
The attention to detail is what makes both records worth returning to over and over. One of the stand out tracks on ‘Blond(e)’ – ‘White Ferrari’ – went through 50 iterations before Ocean got it right. “It didn’t give me peace yet”, he told the New York Times of one version rejected along the way. Elsewhere, on ‘Ivy’, he manipulated his voice to sound younger, in order to encapsulate the time he was writing about.
This year has also been about Frank Ocean retrospectively taking back some power over who he is. Already not one to put his whole life out on social media, the New York Times interview is the only time he has spoken to the press since his two album releases. Part of the mystery he cultivates is about taking control of his fame.
“Sometimes I’m fascinated with how famous my work could be while I’m not so famous”, he said in that interview. “[I’m] super-envious of the fact that Daft Punk can wear robot helmets and be one of the most famous bands in the world, while also understanding that will never be my situation. It’s too late. It’s hard to articulate how I think about myself as a public figure. I’ve gotten used to being Frank Ocean”.
Watch the video for ‘Blond(e)’ opening track ‘Nikes’ here:
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