It’s universally accepted that the release of Frank Ocean’s much anticipated second album is a Very Big Deal. Now, with the release of ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ tantalisingly imminent we can move beyond speculating over the ins and outs of release dates and teaser Instagram posts by trying to answer the key question: Why does all this matter, and how did we get to the stage where Frank Ocean is one of the 21st century’s new musical icons?
It’s been clear for a long time that Frank Ocean is a special talent – but crucially, it’s not been particularly clear to record label execs nor traditional music moguls. His rise has been very much on his own terms, and he has constantly set his own agenda. Going right back to when he was making pristine R&B pop under the name of Lonny Breaux and the nascent mixtapes he was producing in 2008, Frank was a bubbling undercurrent making waves in underground RnB and hip-hop circles.
Frank’s early reputation was founded on his gifts as a songwriter and a storyteller, ghostwriting songs for John Legend, Justin Bieber, Brandy and Beyonce. Still though, the general population were largely unaware of this exciting new talent, even the execs at his label Def Jam seemingly had no idea that Lonny Breaux and the newly christened Frank Ocean were the same person.
That began to change as he hooked up with notorious LA hip-hop collective Odd Future in 2009. The Odd Future relationship helped to position Frank as the soulful and sensitive human counterpoint to the raucous nihilism of Tyler, The Creator. The group’s lack of boundaries and desire to shake things up played a key part in pushing Frank’s own music to the next level leading to eye-catching collaborations with global icons Jay-Z and Kanye West on ‘Watch The Throne’.
With his own music, Frank was embarking on a journey of expression and revelation. The outstanding 2011 mixtape ‘Nostalgia/Ultra’ saw him broaching themes that had been previously marginalised in hip-hop and R&B and his uniquely personal and social form of songwriting harked back to the early 70s when black R&B musicians like Sly Stone, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder set the tone of both musical and social discourse. Not content with just writing hit songs, Frank Ocean wanted to change the world.
The true signifier of Frank’s ascent to global superstar status came with 2012’s masterpiece debut ’Channel Orange’. The album itself is wonderfully diverse and richly detailed, but perhaps the key moment in Frank Ocean’s career came six days before the release as Frank published a tender, heartfelt, beautifully written note on his Tumblr account detailing his “first love”, a man he met in the summer when he was 19.
Of course, Frank’s position as a hugely successful musician was already assured and the masterful album itself is the true story, but what the Tumblr revelation did was show a musician who was utterly confident and unafraid to open himself up in the most stark and honest way. Rather than follow established trends and ways of thinking, Frank has defined himself against them.
Now, four years later precious little has been heard from Frank. He hasn’t given any interviews since the ‘Channel Orange’ publicity cycle, and his only meaningful public utterances have came through Tumblr and social media where he has commented on events close to his heart like the shootings in Rolando and his displeasure with Donald Trump.
You can bet that Frank is acutely aware of the anticipation surrounding his every move and musical future, but perhaps that’s what makes him so clever and perceptive. He knows just what it means to be a major public figure in the 21st century and is arguably the key musical figure of the social internet age. He knows how to play the game perfectly and right now, Frank is way out in front.
Or is he? While Frank Ocean excels at playing the internet game, he has jumped onto the pantheon of global musical icons that are setting the agenda for a new generation. Just like Kendrick Lamar and Beyonce, Frank’s work has a cultural as well as musical impact. They are bigger than music itself and are transcendent cultural figures on a par with any era’s icons. For Michael Jackson, Prince and Madonna in the 80s see Frank, Kendrick and Beyonce in the 2010s.
With global superstars come big egos though and you can bet a perfectionist like Frank will be honing his new album to the very last second to outdo Kendrick’s stunning opus ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ and Beyonce’s career defining ‘Lemonade’. If those records were that good then you can salivate over how good Frank’s would have to be to top them. That’s why the anticipation behind ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ is so intense: we’re living in a golden age for socially conscious, progressive R&B and hip-hop and the prodigal son is about to return.
Nobody quite knows what ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ will sound like, but whatever you’re expecting is unlikely to be right. In a musical era where everyone thinks they know everything, the one true excitement is in the unknowable. Frank Ocean is perhaps about to provide the salvation that we crave.