Almost as soon as the RnB singer Frank Ocean released his magnificent debut album “Channel ORANGE” in 2012, fans and critics began to clamour for more. They have had to wait four years for his follow-up, a wait made all the more unbearable by a succession of false starts. Ocean said the next album would arrive in April 2014; it didn’t. He said it would be out in July 2015; it wasn’t. Then finally last weekend, an embarrassment of riches. A black-and-white film called – what else? – “Endless”, an album called “Blond”, and “Boys Don’t Cry”, a limited-edition magazine.
Was it all an elaborate tease? A canny marketing ploy? If so, it worked: last week, “Channel ORANGE” had a 40% spike in sales, and crept back in to the Billboard 200 for the first time in three years. Ocean surely isn’t complaining – and yet, he has a fraught relationship with the celebrity that comes with such success. He has been in the public eye since “Channel ORANGE” won two Grammys for its stunning latticework of hip-hop and RnB. A week before the album was released, he became one of the first mainstream rappers to come out of the closet – a bold move, particularly considering hip-hop’s ongoing problem with homophobia. His courage, on both a personal and artistic level, has made him a hero to many.
But once you become a star, you get fixed into the firmament for all to see. Not everyone can stomach that level of visibility. Ocean all but disappeared from public view in the second half of 2015; hysterical articles declared that he’d gone missing. His new film “Endless” bursts the bubble of hype surrounding its release. Lasting 45 minutes, it is set entirely in a warehouse and shows Ocean building a spiral staircase. He remains silent, but his voice, crooning and crowing from song to song, fills the space. When the staircase is finished, he climbs to the top and the scene cuts. If you enjoyed woodwork at school, you may appreciate Ocean’s skill with a saw; if not, “Endless” may feel a little, well, endless. It lacks the fizz of Beyonce’s “Lemonade”, a sumptuous film released last April that married sound to image to make a powerful statement about black America. But “Endless” is intentionally monochrome, repetitive and boring. The process of creating something is much like building a staircase, Ocean seems to say. Art can’t be rushed.
“Blond” was worth waiting for, and fittingly it is about the passage of time and the selves we fashion and discard as the weeks, months and years roll by. Ocean breaks his silence with “Nikes”, a woozy, languorous song that begins with the line, “I got two versions/I got two versions”. He is a man of his word: the album has two different covers, and he plays with his sexual identity with two different titles (“Blond” and “Blonde”). It also has two slightly different track lists, depending on whether you listen to the digital or the physical record. The format mirrors Ocean’s fractured sense of self. Whereas “Channel ORANGE” is peopled with several fully realised characters, from troubled rich kids to a pharaoh, “Blond” is inhabited by different versions of Ocean. In “Pink + White”, he’s an innocent kid, revelling in a happy childhood growing up in New Orleans; in “Solo”, he’s older, depressed and self-medicating with marijuana. He paints multi-faceted portraits of himself – as sweet and vulnerable, capricious and sometimes cruel – often within the same song. On “Nights”, which captures the way fresh hopes can stale, a stressed-out Ocean recalls a happier time when he was less bruised and callous, more tender and generous.
“Channel ORANGE” was shot through with melancholy, but it could also be funny and light-hearted. “Blond” is a darker album, which finds its psychological climax in “Siegfried”, a song about courage (as its Wagnerian name suggests) and the most powerful track Ocean has ever written. It begins quietly, with a faint guitar, as Ocean – his voice raw with emotion – describes his unhappiness. “Been living in an idea/an idea from another man’s mind,” he sings. “I’m not brave”, but “I’d rather live outside/I’d rather go to jail/I’ve tried hell”. Then the strings kick in, and time seems almost to stand still. Ocean isn’t singing about any of his past selves, but about who he is right now. He doesn’t like what he sees but finds the strength to say goodbye to his self-loathing and self-doubt. “This isn’t my life/It’s not what I’m like”. On “Siegfried”, Ocean becomes the man he wants to be.
On the last track, someone tells Ocean, “you’ve changed”. At the beginning of “Blond”, Ocean is an enigma; by the end, he has shed his other personae to show us something of himself.