sorry, but: frank ocean never really came back

Niall Flynn /
Nov 21, 2016 / Music

I’m writing this because some schoolkids woke me up on the train. I do all of my best sleeping on trains, you see. Beds are fine, as are sofas, while floors really don’t deserve their bad rep as a place for shuteye. Planes suck, but cars aren’t so terrible. Trains, though. Wow. That’s a real place to get yer slumber.

I was fifteen minutes into my journey from Waterloo to Southampton, when three wide-eyed, blue-blazered pre-teens decided to find something funny at a higher rate of decibels than previous punchlines had justified. Fair enough. I laugh all of the time. Laughter? I’m all for it. But not on this train, fellas. Not on my train. I’d been looking forward to this nap since I booked the tickets a fortnight ago. It’s a 90 minute journey. I’ve got a table seat. In the quiet carriage. Conditions are perfect. “I think we woke that guy up,” said their ringleader, a ginger-haired boy, still reeling from his giggle fit. Yes, actually – that’s exactly what you did, you pubeless little fuckhead. It’s been about an hour now. They’re long gone, but I’m very much awake. I’m not bitter.

When I was awoken, it wasn’t just to the giggles of my new nemesis and his two henchmen. Actually, before I’d fallen asleep, I’d stuck my headphones in and selected Frank Ocean’s Blonde to nod off to (see previous comment about conditions being perfect). I came back around to the closing chords of Self Control, one of the album’s numerous dainty highlights. It takes a certain kind of record to fall asleep to; it takes an even more specific kind of record to be purposefully selected for such a venture. The perfect ‘sleep album’ needs to be a piece of music content with operating in the backdrop. Less of a collection of songs, more of a musical ecosystem. Detached, distant – that kind of thing. Blonde is exactly that.

And this is how I arrived at the statement that this article’s titles so boldly makes.

Those who spent the last four years achingly yearning for the return of the artist known as Frank Ocean thought that following Blonde – and, for that matter, Endless, it’s visual precursor – their man was very much back in the spotlight. Well, they were wrong. The follow-up to Channel Orange poses a direct antithesis to its predecessor in every way imaginable, explicitly juxtaposing the fanfare that surrounded the singer-songwriter’s return. But that’s the thing, isn’t it. This wasn’t the return of Frank Ocean. No, no, no. Far from it.

Blonde is perhaps the most insular release in the modern history of inverted musical pondering. Throughout the album – which can be best viewed as Frank’s own personal history – Ocean fluctuates along his own, intimate timeline, using vocal manipulation to demonstrate different ages and points in his life. There’s Ivy, where a young Frank explores the fractured chronology of a relationship “back then” with blissful naiveity, immediately followed by the older, wiser retrospective Pink + White. “It’s all downhill from here,” he hums in the latter, without a flinch. The point is, that you’d struggle to find an album that exceeds Blonde as an intimate, personalised documentation.

Channel Orange famously dealt with Ocean’s youth and sexuality, but did so in the most show-stopping of manners; it was a grand, technicolour venture in personal exploration, dressing Ocean’s innermost conflict up in lights and inviting everyone to come and watch. Contrastingly, Blonde dissipates into the background scenery, with blink-and-you’ll-miss-it modesty. If Channel Orange was Ocean in the spotlight, then Blonde is him sneaking backstage. If his debut was the announcement of Frank Ocean the artist into the public sphere, then Blonde is his enigmatic retreat. Before its long[long, long, long, long]-anticipated release, Ocean’s absence had the world questioning whether he was still part of this earth. Blonde leaves us with more questions than answers.

Frank Ocean has always been a reluctant pop-star. Even during the wave of excitable frenzy that came to embody the Odd Future phenomenon, Ocean came off as detached – ambivalent, even – to the notion of fame and recognition. You get the feeling that he’d be perfectly content making music for his ears alone. In a rare interview with the New York Times last week, he announced that he wouldn’t be submitting his music for Grammy consideration. While the feature does a noble job of providing us with a glimpse into the mysterious artist’s psyche, again, it leaves us with even more questions. Don’t think for a second that he cares about that, though.

Ocean seems intent on disappearing – and that’s fine. He’s a sage-like figure, more comfortable performing the role of a fleeting sensei, occasionally allowing himself to be discovered by the larger population in order for him to gift us with songs of sacred wisdom. Blonde – as a fleeting glimpse – is exactly that. It’s a beautiful, methodical whisper from the outreach, of which Ocean will occupy until he sees fit. If you thought that this piece of music was his return, then you were sadly mistaken. Blonde is further evidence that he’s further away than ever before. It’s what suits him best.

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Words by Niall Flynn

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