Critics search by land and sea for the elusive “significance” of Frank Ocean’s career because we’ve hardly seen anything quite like it in pop culture: a son of New Orleans embarks on a career in music in Los Angeles after Hurricane Katrina floods his recording studio. He joins a rap collective called Odd Future that looks like the second-coming of Wu Tang, releases a critically acclaimed album (Channel ORANGE), and rises to fame with a series of stellar guest appearances with rap’s elite (“No Church In The Wild,” “Made In America”, “Oceans”). He comes out as having fallen in love with a man, disappears musically for four years, and then releases a glut of material in mid-2016 after a series of false starts and teases.
This is not the album-a-year pace of Jay Z in the 1990s. It isn’t the manic output of Lil’ Wayne in the 2000s. And it certainly isn’t Drake’s consistent dominance of the Billboard 100 in the 2010s. Ocean’s rollout of Endless and Blond indicates a new school approach to creative work in a digital age.
By releasing the extended music video Endless as an iTunes exclusive to satisfy his contractual obligations with Def Jam, Ocean didn’t wrestle free from his record label so much as he outmaneuvered them. The gambit allowed Ocean to dispense his album Blond a day later on Apple Music without the interference of his old record label, and therefore increased his profit share of Blond from a paltry 14% to a robust 70%. Ocean had his freedom. Fans had an abundance of new material from Ocean. And Def Jam had a 45-minute music video that it couldn’t efficiently monetize (Endless), as well as absolutely no part of the profits of one of the most anticipated albums of the year (Blond).
This was weapons-grade cunning: the kind of scheming seldom seen since the days mid-century jazz legends recorded with fake names and different instruments to avoid being detected by the labels they were under contract with, or when Miles Davis recorded four separate albums of material in only two days to dump Prestige Records for Columbia Records. Coincidentally, the music of Endless and Blond contains allusions to greats from the past.
Ocean’s famed falsetto will never fail to garner comparisons to Michael Jackson. Ocean coyly references The King of Pop while performing alongside The Queen of Pop—
Beyoncé—on the Blond track “Pink + White.” Though Ocean (28) is four years older than he was when he first rose to national prominence with the 2012 album Channel ORANGE, his vocals still contain a dash of ‘90s teen heartthrob Tevin Campbell’s sweetness, particularly on the pitched-up vocals of “Nikes.” And the first song of Endless is a cover of The Isley Brothers’ 1976 “At Your Best,” a song resurrected by Aaliyah’s 1994 rendition. The title Endless may as well refer to the rich continuum of black music in which Ocean stakes his claim.
This isn’t to say that the sounds of Blond and Endless are not fresh. The songs “Solo,” “Skyline To,” and “Self Control” elude clean categorization, as Ocean switches effortlessly from slickly rapped lines to sultry melodies and back. Music critic Mark Fisher has observed a similar tendency in Canadian rapper/singer Drake’s music. “Drake’s signature move [is] the transition from rap to singing, the slipping down from ego-assertion into a sensual purring,” wrote Fisher in his stellar 2013 review of Drake’s Nothing Was The Same. In “Skyline To,” Ocean inserts rapid rapping into short spaces left by the brief absence of the sung bars; the androgynous aural attack introduces the excitement of the moment (“Wanna get soaked?/ Wanna film a tape on the speed boat?”) to the sad fact that it is already fleeting (“It begins to blur we get older,/ Summer’s not as long as it used to be”).
While steeped in rap, R&B, thick African-American Vernacular English, and ‘hood tales, “Solo” still somehow transcends genre. It brings to mind Kanye West’s 2009 appearance on The View, in which West performed his tune “Heartless” in the drawl of a country singer. The fact that the greatest male singer of love songs in the country at the moment has a nontraditional sexual identity should, alone, be enough for a cultural referendum on hackneyed gender roles; the floating ambience and sans-drum atmospherics of Ocean’s musicianship on Blond can guide a similar conversation about racial typecasts.
In fact, it can feel like Ocean exists specifically to subvert our assumptions about how men—in the words of his 2011 performance with Kanye West and Jay Z—are supposed to “make it in America.” Odd Future is a deeply talented affiliate that has produced Millennial rap icons Tyler the Creator and Earl Sweatshirt. On the 2013 single “All Me,” Drake sang “Came up that’s all me/ No help that’s all me,/ All me for real.” While he shares Drake’s penchant for unctuous sincerity and rap-to-singing switch-ups, the fact that Ocean came up in an explicitly collaborative environment gives the lie to the “I’m the main cause of my success”-school of rap braggadocio.
In a paper titled “Theorizing Masculinities for a New Generation,” scholar Eric Anderson has written that American men at the time of Frank Ocean’s birth (1987) were “beginning to eschew the homophobic orthodox masculinity of the 1980s.” Three decades later, the result is a cultural climate in which NBA players like LeBron James and Kevin Durant join forces with the rivals they’re supposed to want to beat, the most popular superhero films feature women (Ghostbusters) and teams of collaborators (The Avengers), and soccer pitches are petri dishes of male bonding that borders on homoerotic. With the passing of David Bowie and Prince and the resurgence of Frank Ocean, we’ll hopefully remember 2016 as the year this new school of masculinity had its coming-out party.
A couple of years after Frank Ocean came out, former Def Jam President Russell Simmons’ comments on Ocean’s courage still ring true. “Today is a day that will define who we really are,” Simmons wrote in a congratulatory article. “How compassionate will we be? How loving can we be? How inclusive are we? Frank’s decision to go public gives hope and light to so many young people still living in fear.”
Men of a certain age have inherited a mode of masculinity that prioritizes strength over sensitivity, and isolationist grit over emotional intelligence. Call it a generational condition—the seeds of which were planted in the steroidal 1980s, which introduced characters like Rocky and Rambo and Hulk Hogan to the pop culture mainstream, and valorized the rhetorical flexing of Ronald Reagan. The old school of masculinity so saturated our culture and politics that presidential candidates like Bill Clinton—and later Barack Obama—couldn’t afford to appear weak on crime, on terrorism, or on our international enemies. We didn’t want diplomacy; we wanted commandos.
Yet while Reagan was losing his mind to onset Alzheimer’s and Rocky was braving brain damage in the boxing ring, a new school of masculinity was quietly waging a countercultural offensive: a school that prioritized brains over brawn, and strategy over physical strength. Consider the “sensitive rocker” ethos of Kurt Cobain, or the über-intelligence of Steve Urkel as examples. This new school was far from innocent. As evidenced by the infamous rape-by-deception scene in the 1984 college comedy Revenge of the Nerds, beta-males were every bit as capable of abuse and misogyny as their muscle-bound counterparts. But by admitting their status as outcasts from an exclusionary norm, at least space was created in the mainstream for men to express vulnerability where only violence had previously sufficed.
The music of Endless and Blond is frequently too hazy to trace a clear creative direction. On the video for the former, Ocean languidly builds a staircase to nowhere: panel-by-panel and piece-by-piece, the mischievous architect assembles an anticlimactic spectacle to audiences weaned on the expectation that physical assertion is supposed to culminate in a spectacular money shot of some sort. Ocean shows that men can work with their muscles while still being more than them. This is a portrait of the artist as a young man on no one’s timeline but his own. We should learn to love the privilege of being fine with that.