It happened to me just this week.
I wouldn’t say that I thought I was immune to it, but I hadn’t been affected by Frank Ocean’s peculiarities nearly as much as most of his fans have. When I thought of the troubled artist, listing out the various inexplicable and maddening idiosyncrasies that Frank Ocean has shown during his short but already legendary music career, I did it with a bias of someone trying to defend a misunderstood person.
I smugly thought of the years of tortuous waiting that his fans had to go through between his debut album, Channel Orange in 2012 and last year’s Blonde. Four years isn’t an unreasonable amount of time for an artist to work on a new album, but Ocean stated in April 2014 that it was almost done. What followed were two and a half years of fake rumors, reports of his retirement from music, and a series of canceled appearances and strange behavior. Ocean himself even posted a message that contained “#ALBUM3” and “#JULY2015,” a promise that never materialized.
“Pain” might not be too dramatic of a word to describe what Ocean’s flakiness does to the people that depend on him. But I sit on the other side of the gulf, and a two-and-a-half year wait with no information doesn’t seem quite so bad from that side. Because I sat in 2017 with Blonde just a Spotify search away, it didn’t seem so bad. And I had tickets to see him at the Hangout Music Festival this month–I thought I had Frank Ocean figured out.
Then a text appeared on my phone last week. I glanced down, and a few words stood out in my brain as I quickly scanned the screen: “Frank Ocean won’t be playing hangout…replaced by Phoenix…”
The world’s most unreliable music artist had done it again, and this time to me!
Reminded of who exactly I had expected to see in concert, I couldn’t help but smirk. Frank Ocean is having something of a moment right now, and I can’t tell if this popularity is a result of his oddities or despite them. But time after time, he has shown that he doesn’t cave to pressure from fans, the music industry, or money. He instead prefers to express his genius in his own ways, on his own time.
Following Blonde’s release in 2016, it was revealed that Ocean had missed a key filing deadline for consideration to be nominated for the 2017 Grammy Awards. Kanye West said he would boycott the awards show if they didn’t accommodate Ocean’s album, saying “The album I listen to the most this year is Frank Ocean’s album…I’ll tell you this right now: if his album’s not nominated in no categories, I’m not showin’ up to the Grammys.”
It turns out Frank Ocean missed it on purpose–he had no intention of attending the Grammys at all. Ocean, along with many other artists, has been critical of the Grammy voting system that is perceived to be biased against black artists. In an interview with the New York Times, Ocean himself explained, “I think the infrastructure of the awarding system and the nomination system and screening system is dated,” he said, “I’d rather this be my Colin Kaepernick moment for the Grammys than sit there in the audience.”
The incident was yet another example of Ocean refusing to compromise his personal values because of what others want him to do. His first album, Channel Orange, was released on the Def Jam label, which signed Ocean for two albums in 2009. Hesitant to remain with a label that could control his career decisions, he attempted to take control of his own musical destiny. When Blonde came out in August 2016, it was released under his own label “Boys Don’t Cry.” He got out of his contract by releasing a “visual album” titled Endless the day before Blonde, appearing only on Apple Music without much fanfare.
Being an independent artist makes sense for Ocean, who suffered from years of writer’s block that led to the production delays for Blonde. By all accounts a perfectionist, Ocean’s album which was originally supposed to come out in 2014, was still nowhere to be seen by the summer of 2016, leading many of his fans to believe it would never be released.
In the end, Frank Ocean came through, and Blonde was well worth the wait. The album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart and currently sits at an 87/100 on review aggregator website Metacritic.
During his four-year hiatus, Ocean gained a reputation of being flaky, unreliable, and neurotic, particularly with his public appearances. During the agonizing summer of 2016, he languished as a Twitter meme that made fun of how long his album was taking to materialize.
— Zayoncé✨ (@FlashyKordei) August 5, 2016
— Philip Lewis (@Phil_Lewis_) August 1, 2016
Ocean also became notorious for canceling public appearances. During his hiatus, he repeatedly canceled shows at the last minute–including the infamous FYF festival in 2015, where Kanye West replaced him to fans’ delight. In fact, May’s Hangout Music Festival was supposed to be his big return.
There was also a highly publicized spat with Chipotle, who paid Ocean for a commercial appearance only to have Ocean cancel because they refused to remove the Chipotle logo from the commercial. Yet again, Ocean eschewed a paycheck when things just weren’t quite right for him and his artistic vision.
Just before the release of Channel Orange, Ocean went against the music industry current in a more serious way. Known for his prolific use of Tumblr to communicate with fans, on July 4, 2012, Ocean posted a heartfelt letter on the site that revealed his relationship with another man–a revelation that affected the environment that black, male musicians operated in.
It changed the landscape almost immediately. Russell Simmons, an influential producer and co-founder of Def Jam, Ocean’s label, wrote “Today is a big day for hip-hop. It is a day that will define who we really are. How compassionate will we be? How loving can we be? How inclusive are we?”
Hip-hop is a genre rife with homophobic lyrics, references, and personalities, even to this day. But Ocean’s friend and popular rapper Tyler the Creator, among others, tweeted out support almost immediately.
My Big Brother Finally Fucking Did That. Proud Of That Nigga Cause I Know That Shit Is Difficult Or Whatever. Anyway. Im A Toilet.
— Tyler, The Creator (@tylerthecreator) July 4, 2012
Despite some support, Ocean’s revealing letter seemed to scare away many in the industry. Rapper T-Pain ranted in 2014 that prominent rappers avoided working with Ocean since his coming out. There were also accusations of homophobia against Chris Brown who had an infamous altercation with Ocean in 2013.
More recently, Quavo, a popular member of the Atlanta-based rap trio Migos, came under fire in March 2017 for a homophobic statement he made after rapper iLoveMakonnen came out. He described the support that iLoveMakkonnen was getting as “wack,” and “not right,” adding that being gay hurt the rapper’s street cred because “he first came out trapping and selling molly, doing all that.”
Quavo defended his statements soon afterward, saying “If you real from the heart, you real from the heart. That ain’t got nothing to do with no sex or gender. It’s 2017, and we all living.” He concluded by saying, “I got a record with Frank Ocean [“Slide”]. That closes my case.”
Quavo’s comments can be seen as insensitive. To me, it’s quite remarkable that a true-blue southern rapper talks about homosexuality as if it really doesn’t matter to him. A few years ago, homophobia among rappers–especially southern rappers–was to be expected. Now, it’s looked down upon. It seems that Frank Ocean changed the way many in the industry saw those who aren’t heterosexual.
Frank Ocean was something of a pioneer, being not heterosexual in an industry extremely unaccustomed to anything other macho men. Some of his most popular songs, including “Thinking ‘Bout You,” “Chanel,” and “Forrest Gump” touch on his sexual orientation, and he’s become a role model for parts of the LGBT+ movement in music. Never before has such a popular R&B artist so openly displayed the heartache of same-sex attraction, and Channel Orange truly represented a turning point for the genre.
Ocean represents a refreshing side of the music industry in 2017. He’s concerned with his art, not multiplatinum albums, record label paychecks, or lucrative world tours. Artists like Drake and Justin Bieber are on top of the world right now, largely because they release music so frequently. But Frank Ocean takes a different approach.
In an age where capitalism rules the music industry, he seems to be more concerned with perfecting his craft. “I believe that I’m one of the best in the world at what I do, and that’s all I’ve ever wanted to be,” he said in a New York Times interview. “It’s more interesting for me to figure out how to be superior in areas where I’m naïve, where I’m a novice.”
It’s impossible to know what’s next for R&B’s most unreliable wunderkind, except that he will be the one to decide it. I’ll still buy tickets to his shows in hopes that he decides to show up at them, but I certainly won’t make the mistake of thinking I understand Frank Ocean ever again. Sometimes, his actions make him a hero. More often, they make him a villain. Only one thing is certain–it’s impossible to ignore him.