In the second season of Empire, there’s a fascinating storyline centring on Jamal (Jussie Smollett), a character who seems modelled on Frank Ocean, not just in terms of his sexuality, but his R&B aesthetic, his earnest, sometimes whiny tenor and his mellow, bohemian vibe. Jamal has come out as gay, and is celebrated (like Ocean) as a standard-bearer in a frequently homophobic culture. But then he has a fling with a fellow, female star played by Alicia Keys, and quickly discovers how pop heroism can be a sort of prison. A gay Hollywood mogul who has been advising him withdraws his support; a group of queer activists humiliate him in public with a version of his brother’s song “Drip Drop”. (“Flip flop,” they chant in a circle, clapping together bright pairs of thongs.) Because of their identification with Jamal, they feel they have the right to dictate the gender of his sexual partners.
It prompts the question of what an artist owes his audience. Frank Ocean has always been odd casting for the role of culture hero. A large part of the hype around his album Channel Orange was generated by his coming out as bisexual, but the actual queer content was minimal, three songs out of fourteen. (Admittedly, one of those three was the album’s standout, “Bad Religion”.) There is, of course, no gay quota Ocean is obliged to hit, no correct way to represent his experiences. But from Channel Orange on, there has been a gap between the figure he cuts in the culture and the music he makes. Like Sia, he has built a persona around privacy, a refusal to put out the way other pop stars do.
Compare Ocean to his peers Miguel and The Weeknd; Ocean beat the latter to the chorus “Can’t feel my face,” by several years in his song “Novacane,” but Ocean never goes for the pop jugular the way The Weeknd does. I think this is what Miguel meant when he said, “I genuinely believe that I make better music, all the way around.” Miguel sets out to entertain – lays in the hooks and the choruses – and Ocean gets all the plaudits. It’s something that Ocean cops to in another early track, “Songs for Women,” where a girlfriend prefers Drake to the new music he’s recording. Either he’s incapable of writing big hits, or he has no interest in doing so. There’s something recessive about Ocean; perhaps that’s why his mother is so emphatically against pot in an interlude on his new album Blonde.
Ocean is often at his best with other performers. Two of the highlights on his solo debut, the mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra, are built around other people’s music. Ocean simply recorded new vocals over tracks by Coldplay and The Eagles. (Don Henley did not approve.) Kanye West uses Ocean in his own music as shading: the chorus that introduces a note of doubt to “No Church in the Wild”; the beautiful coda to “New Slaves” (a relief after its brutal paranoia); introducing Greek mythology to the middle section of “Wolves”. The song Ocean wrote for Beyoncé’s album 4, “I Miss You,” inspires an unusually understated vocal from her. He seems to have a calming effect on these dynamic personalities; to draw something yearning and lyrical from them.
Conversely, André 3000 works as a shot of adrenalin; he attacks his guest verses on Ocean’s albums with such rat-a-tat gusto (and his customary, playful sense of the ridiculous) that it shows up his host’s limitations. The becalmed mood Ocean creates is too little varied; when he tries for a straightforward celebration of the physical, like “Golden Girl” on Channel Orange, the Caribbean rhythm is rote, his details become vague, his vocals lack conviction. He seems to know this about himself: on the new album he expresses the ambition to be “less morose and more present”. When, a few bars later, he decides to “eat some shrooms, maybe have a good cry,” it sounds almost like self-parody: it’s the most Frank Ocean Frank Ocean lyric ever.
The new album makes Channel Orange, which has always been too subtle for me, sound like Max Martin. On Orange, the songs come equipped with hooks (the close cousin to the “Bennie and the Jets” riff on “Super Rich Kids”), choruses (the beautiful shift to falsetto on “Thinkin Bout You”), beats (the way the rhythms pile up on the chorus of “Lost”) and arrangements (the bass and keyboards rippling under “Sweet Life”). The album has scope: it’s an ambivalent portrait of West Coast luxury that recalls The Hissing of Summer Lawns; “Pyramids” links the ersatz monuments of Las Vegas with the real glories of African history; “Crack Rock” is an unsparing portrait of addiction.
Blonde is a more inward album in every sense. It seems to take its cue from “Pilot Jones,” a woozy, static song from Orange about a relationship built around drugs. The tempos here are uniformly mid; Ocean’s procedure is to lay a bed of keyboards or unobtrusive guitar with some minimal pulse and then to meander vocals over the top. Structurally, he prefers short refrains to full-fledged choruses; these repeated phrases (“I thought that I was dreaming when you said you loved me”) are as catchy as this album gets. The moments when Ocean varies the arrangements a little (the harmonies at the close of “Pink + White”; the squawking guitar solo on “Self Control”; the strummed bit of The Beatles’ “Here, There and Everywhere”) stick out more than they should, because the dynamic varies so little between songs. It’s Channel Orange deconstructed: most of these songs, with their wandering melodies and laconic delivery, feel more like drafts, or desultory noodling, than a finished work of art. Lyrically, too, it’s more narrowly personal: adolescence recalled, curiously downbeat parties, highs barely felt, male and female partners. It’s like someone invited you over and then got too high to play host.
Part of Ocean’s achievement is making a splash with such uningratiating music. He is a master of the well-timed Tumblr post, of the tactically delayed release, of surrounding himself with the right famous friends. If it seems strange that he went to so much trouble to draw attention to what amounts to a long, stoned shrug, he’s hardly the first artist to turn the role of brooding outsider into a sexy (and lucrative) attitude. Like Jamal Lyon, he doesn’t owe anything to anyone.