Years from now this stretch of years will likely be seen as a turning point in black artist liberation and resistance.
We’ve been treated to a series of surprise releases, disruptive delivery methods, aggressive negotiation and critical success under new auspices that have already become so routine that our collective brains might already feel spoiled by the approaches. Across the mediums, artists have been toying with established industry standards and a constant blurring of industry respectability in content and decorum. That approach has had some tremendous highs for artists and audiences; Lemonade seemingly broke the internet with its cocktail of music, media, and message. Beyonce asserted a content mastery that trumped even her own standards, and it’s still hard to appreciate the degree of mastery that went into her best album to date. It can be easy to forget Lemonade’s multi-media dominance that started with the release of the ‘Formation’ music video, rolled into the controversial Super Bowl halftime show, which led into the HBO visual album special and then the album release. Lemonade stayed in the public conscience long after its spins were arguably overtaken by other releases, perhaps the most notable being Adele, the artist she was involuntarily placed in competition against in last February’s 2017 Grammy Awards.
That show was an epicenter for looking at the ways that black artists are more collectively walking away from industry standards. There was a palpable absence in this year’s Grammys that was a great microcosm of what’s happening in music nowadays; from the increasingly mercurial Kanye West and the pop effervescent Drake, there’s been a constant assertion of doing things on their own terms. Kanye spent the last year or so in a mental state of lucidity and confusion that was mirrored in the public rebuilding and iterations of The Life of Pablo, which saw releases, re-releases, pulled off the internet, placed on the internet, the remastering of tracks and adding of tracks. Drake, the artist with the biggest album seller last year with Views, an album that underwent its own series of fits and starts with a series of imminent announcements, leaked and unconfirmed songs, or redrafts of the single “Pop Style” which initially featured the Jay-Z and Kanye mega pair aka The Throne only to have them scrapped from the final version. In the midst of all this, there’s an artist that seems to sit in the midst of all these types of machinations around creative control, marketing, perfection, and aloofness: Frank Ocean.
“If you don’t own your masters, your master owns you.”
As the industry has continued to weaken in many respects—streaming has become the dominant delivery method, overtaking traditional album sales in an industry that’s seen album sales tumble by nearly 17% last year—Frank Ocean’s approach to navigating the industry has inspired a great deal of talk. After taking four years off after Channel Orange, Ocean made occasional appearances, surfacing on his Tumblr to share his thoughts about politics, the passing of Prince and occasionally dropping songs like “Mesmir” which felt more like vignettes. He still managed to do music for the masses too, but playing the background vocals or singing on “Watch the Throne”, “Magna Carta Holy Grail” and “Yeezus”. Those occasional emergences made Frank into something of an early folk character in pop culture as his cameos felt more like Ocean being coaxed out of seclusion to perform a hook before evaporating back into our imaginations all over again. Those co-features resulted in feeling essentially incidental; tracks that were ultimately overshadowed by bigger or more superior tracks on the same album—“Watch the Throne” is likely more remembered for “Otis” and “…..In Paris” than “No Church in the Wild”—or as a footnote consumed by the event of the album itself, as was the case with “Oceans” on “Magna Carta Holy Grail” which may go down for being more memorable for its Samsung promotion.
When Blonde arrived last Spring, its release grabbed a lot of notable attention, not the least of which was due to the fact that only days before Ocean released the moody, brooding Endless which felt like an art-house piece showcasing where Ocean found himself now—solitary, pensive and workman-like. The streaming performance was limited to only iTunes and shot entirely in black and white with Ocean steeped deep in mundanity while a series of new songs and covers drape the footage for 45 minutes, it passes as a meditative look on the artist and the artist as a certain type of celebrity that he seeks to escape. It’s easy to see “Endless” as a number of things; an attempt to show Frank’s layers; the solemnity of fame or, perhaps more chillingly, suggesting how content and easy it might be for Ocean to walk away from music. There’s no performance to the Endless piece, most of the time Ocean doesn’t even face you as his back is turned as he constructs something in an empty warehouse.
Performance has been at the center of the latest stories around Ocean as he got into a cross-internet debate with the producers of the Grammys on two fronts in performance and representation.
In the midst of all this has been his music though, and for a man that’s been so elusive about releasing content, Ocean has been downright prolific in the last couple of months. The initial single, “Chanel”, felt like a just-missed cut from “Blonde”; the type of song that felt like it might’ve lost in a coin toss against songs like “Ivy” or “Solo”, while “Biking”, a mashup with Jay-Z and Tyler the Creator finds Frank reminiscent of his early best self; a sprawling narrative that teeters between whimsical and philosophical. On the heels of that came “Lens” which has Frank at his best; measuring love, commitment, and his own self-doubts all in one. Collectively, these songs are diverse offerings that are still united by that trademark movement and restlessness that’s at the heart of so many of his best songs like “Novacane”, “Pyramids”, “Lost”, “Nights” and “Seigfried”. At this point, even as Ocean clearly toys with a new song, treating his “Blonded” radio station on Apple as an audio lab akin to the Endless warehouse, the music constantly feels like it’s entirely his own and being released on his own determination. That sort of ownership has literal meaning too; Ocean shared in a rare NYT interview that he’d used his own money to purchase the masters to all his songs, retaining control of his music after going into business with the Def Jam label.
“this sort of unmooring isn’t just an act of resistance but of survival too”
Moves like these are not only impressive because they build on efforts laid before him that date as far back as Prince’s “SLAVE” period during the early 1990’s when the artist took to branding his cheek with the word and changing his name to a wordless symbol after extended contract disputes with Warner Bros. his label at the time. In a 1996 interview with Rolling Stone, he shared “When you stop a man from dreaming, he becomes a slave. That’s where I was. I don’t own Prince’s music. If you don’t own your masters, your master owns you.”
It’s an issue that spans across mediums, with everyone from fabled comic book artist Jack Kirby to Donald Glover wrestling and testing the limits and rights of creator-owned work. There’s also an obvious racial element to all this too; Ocean’s rejection of the industry machine and his subversion of the rules in an attempt to have creative control is actually a proxy for gaining a specific type of freedom or even liberation, that eludes not just the artist, but many common laborers that feels tonally familiar to a lot of marginalized folks trapped in indentured style contracts and conditions. Against the backdrop of a crumbling infrastructure in institutional monoliths like government and the brick-and-mortar retail sectors, this sort of unmooring isn’t just an act of resistance but of survival too, allowing someone like Ocean to pursue a creative frontier that actually seems endless.