Frank Ocean’s sing-song bars finally won over this long-time skeptic.
Time has done a lot of work on me, especially in softening my ears and diversifying my listening palette. Back in 2014 when I was only freelancing for VIBE, an editor had tasked me with writing a list of things to look forward to on Frank’s sophomore album. It had been two years (two eternities, to some) since the release of his oft fawned over channel ORANGE, and at that time, no one knew that we’d still be impatiently waiting another two years from then. We thought “soon” would come a lot sooner than Aug. 20, 2016. In the interim, before his Boys Don’t Cry hints or any semblance of Endless or Blonde came into play, I dreamed up what a perfect continuation of Frank Ocean’s winning streak would sound like.
Of the sole five requests from album numero dos I listed—which included putting us on to new artists (he didn’t), making it a surprise (he did) and giving us a holistic listening experience (he sure did)—I explicitly told him not to rap. “Limit the use of that rap alter-ego,” I’d written, annoyed. “It’s cool to be experimental with your vocal delivery and it looks nice on paper, but we’re not sold on MC Frankie yet. Ballads over bars please.” VIBE.com has since undergone various host site migrations, wiping the comments section clean each time, but I vividly remember one lone user scolding me harshly for my anti-rap stance. In a nutshell, he told me I was trippin’, didn’t know what I was talking about. That’s the best part, he’d insisted. I was livid; mouthy, hypercritical readers have a way of getting underneath the skin. To me, the comment box has been and always will be where all good thoughts and sanity go to die. But I’ve grown since then, and as the years have passed, I can admit that Angry Commenter was 100 percent right to finger-wag at me.
My frame of reference at the moment had been “Blue Whale,” Frank’s Tumblr-bound loosie, his verse on Earl Sweatshirt’s “Sunday” and a text rebuttal to then-enemy Chris Brown written in a Migos flow. To me, all of it was… awkward. Juvenile, even. That voice, wounded and introspective, limply laced in deadpan braggadocio just wasn’t him. It felt like an inauthentic evolution of his skill set. I had fallen head over heels into my feels from his 2011 mixtape, nostalgia, ULTRA, and even some of those scattered tracks like “Voodoo,” “Orion” and “Denim” from the exhausting The Lonny Breaux Collection. When channel ORANGE came, his proper debut, I was inconsolable. His haunting and beautifully flawed vocals exhumed stories of sadness, love and lostness in ways I’d never heard them, even when the tales weren’t his own. There was an honesty in the simplicity of his singing voice, and how it hand-delivered those harmonies, melodies and delicately detailed narratives.
Paired with his deeply revealing blog note explaining his pronoun choices in “Bad Religion” and “Forrest Gump,” Frank was placed on the highest pedestal that summer. I even bought the album (you know, with real life money) and I seldom do that. I really have to like you to consult the Apple store and not YouTube or streaming sites. Channel ORANGE overwhelmed me with its many sonic wonders, but the meat of Frank’s catalogue was, is and always will be his way with words.
The New Orleans-born artist was always clever and coded, both book and street smart. He could talk about nihilism and police tension and tackle various cultural definitions of love, marriage and divorce (nostalgia, ULTRA‘s “American Wedding” and floater track “Voodoo” lie on opposite ends of the marital spectrum). Frank is more than just an accomplished songwriter (he’s written for the likes of Beyonce, Brandy, Alicia Keys, Justin Bieber, John Legend and James Blake). He’s a poet who barely has to try, with an innate ability to manipulate words and sculpt feelings with them, stretch and stack and stifle them like he’s playing with putty. So naturally, it would make sense that they could stand alone in stanzas, trading the swaying lilt of singing for a more rigid delivery, right?
Frank always had bars, I just didn’t see them as that. A devout fan of rhythm and blues, emoting and the kind of rapping that only Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole and Kanye West do—conscious, measured, impressively stylistic—I was listening to Frank’s aforementioned rap tracks with immature ears.
With “Chanel,” his post-Blonde single, Frank finally found his flow, but on my end, it took some preparation from left-of-center rap tracks from Endless, his video non-album, and Blonde. First it was the random overlapping conversations on “Alabama,” talking-to-everyone-but-no-one moments on “Mine,” and even Endless‘ subtle bop and quickie, “Comme des Garçons,” named after the Japanese fashion label that’s French for “like boys.” Then came the jarring “Nikes.” What started as a dragging non-ballad delivered in mutated vocals, clearly tampered with in post-production, dipped off into a riddled rap territory on minute three of the song.
We’ll let you guys prophesy
We gon’ see the future first
Living so the last night feels like a past life
Speaking of the, don’t know what got into people
Devil be possessin’ homies
Demons try to body jump
Why you think I’m in this b***h wearing a fu**ing Yarmulke
I scoffed at these, too… until one day I didn’t. I found myself soothed by his cadence, mindlessly at first, then digging into the nooks and crannies of his couplets for meanings like I did with all his other offerings. It wasn’t awful anymore. With the radio awash with resurgent autotune and artists who refuse to pick a side of the rap-sing arena, Frank Ocean’s rhythm finally fit the time. Now “Chanel” tops the rap pile. Two weeks have passed since he treated patient listeners to the new track on his Blonded Apple Beats 1 Radio show and I still spin it for leisure. In fact, unlike many on my Twitter timeline, I took a liking to it on the first listen.
With “Chanel,” Frank decided to saddle the rap-sing wave in a slightly different way than our trapsoul crooners and straight autotune trappers are doing now. The accented yelps at the top of every sentence of his “I see both sides like Chanel” refrain bookend some pretty impressive verbiage about the fluidity of sexuality, police mistreatment against the black man and self-confidence.
Police think I’m of the underworld
12 treat a n***a like he 12
How you looking up to me and talking down?
Can’t you see I am the big man? (Big man)
God level I am the I am (whoa)
Now film it with that drone cam
In the pink like Killa Cam
Put a zoom on that stick, Noé
Up so close I’m on that kill
The boastfulness, more fitting this time, is there, too. No listener can walk away from the post-Blonde release without knowing about Frank’s lush living and even more snug pockets from designer collabs (Chanel quickly dropped an ad of their own toying with the label’s handsome name-drop). More importantly, the infectiousness of the rolling and quietly thumping single, produced by Swedish duo Jarami, made his melodic raps easier to digest, taking the edge off for the unfamiliar.
From the look of things, like it or not, Frank 2.0 and his no frills rhymes are here to stay. Now all that’s left to do is wait and see what’s still loaded in his canon.