Frank Ocean is the last superstar to value time and secrecy

Frank Ocean values privacy over the share-happy mentality most acts are encouraged to keep today, says Jamie Milton

Jamie Milton
Thursday 04 August 2016 14:37 BST
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You won’t find many carpenters livestreaming their work. Frank Ocean, however, has something else in mind. The New Orleans artist has followed a three-year musical silence with a stint in a workshop. Since the week started, he’s been sawing wood, drilling holes in planks, neatly arranging blocks into piles and having the occasional rest by his station. And thousands of diehard fans have been watching his every move via an Apple Music livestream.

The meaning behind all of this became clear when his first, five-hour woodcutting shift elapsed. Whatever he’s making (rumours suggest he’s building a staircase, to nowhere in particular), this is a process that takes time. And the same applies to his new album, a record originally due in July 2015 that’s more than 12 months late and believed to be finally coming out tomorrow. In the past year, there’s been a chorus of “what’s taking him so long?” outcry, a sense of being duped by an artist who’s fooling around. His carpentry stint might be a one-dimensional metaphor, but that’s the point – Frank Ocean’s craft takes time. Every piece matters. He’s made fans wait for years, now he’s showing them why they’ve had to wait.

In an age where millions tune in to watch a watermelon explode live on Facebook, perhaps the odds were in Frank’s favour. But who else could get thousands of strangers to stare at a workbench for 12 hours straight? Every so often, his laborious chop-and-saw process is interrupted by what sounds like a snippet of deconstructed, ambient music, but we’re hardly talking fireworks. Indirectly, he’s providing an alternative to short-attention-spanned, instant gratification. Not in a snobby, I’m-better-than-you way. More as a means of encouraging people to appreciate the suspense as much as the reward.

When third album Boys Don’t Cry eventually lands, it will arrive within a context of patience being a virtue. The same doesn’t apply to all of 2016’s other big-name releases. Kanye West could still be tinkering with The Life of Pablo, for all anyone knows. In intermittent stages, he’s been updating his seventh studio album, re-uploading songs with rejigged choruses and extra guest spots. His idea that the album lives as a constantly changing, living organism has as much validity as Frank’s belief that when it’s done, it’s done. But Kanye’s approach belongs distinctly to 2016. In a broad stroke, this is also the case with records from Drake, James Blake and Zayn. As per chart rules established in the US since 2014, each individual play of a song contributes to an album’s chart placing. The more songs available to stream, the greater chance an album has of entering the Billboard 200, hence why so many of this year’s big releases have been bloated affairs, more than 15 tracks long. Frank Ocean’s return could be a slowburning, ninety-minute epic. But there’s little chance of it containing last-minute, filler shoe-ins, the likes of which clogged up Drake’s Views and James Blake’s The Colour in Anything. To borrow Frank’s staircase analogy, if you chuck in a couple of flimsy plastic blocks last-minute to boost the structure, the whole thing is in danger of collapsing.

Recent reports suggest Frank’s new full-length will be backed by a print publication and a “major video”. This would tie his return to 2016’s most impressive release, Beyoncé’s Lemonade visual-album. Both artists share a belief that the album, as a form, should stay valued. But they’re achieving this without being old-fashioned or holier than thou. Instead of shunning singles or playlists, they’re building something on top of the songs they’ve made, giving the music itself extra significance.

With the exception of 2014 demo “Memrise”, anything to do with Frank Ocean’s album has been kept under lid. There have been hints of activity from creative director Nabil and even Frank’s brother. But in effect, everyone in the musician’s circle has been sworn to secrecy. Again, this is in stark contrast to recent releases. Kanye believes he’ll never finish The Life of Pablo, so he’s opened the doors to the process. Fans can peer in and watch the record undergo an occasional facelift. In 2015, PJ Harvey took this approach even further by inviting a select number of fans to watch her record, behind one-way glass, at London’s Somerset House. In the company of producers and collaborators Flood and John Parish, she exposed every scrapped chord and discarded lyric. Many of these tracks eventually made the cut for this year’s The Hope Six Demolition Project, but songs that would traditionally be viewed in final form now had a different context. “I want Recording in Progress to operate as if we’re an exhibition in a gallery. I hope visitors will be able to experience the flow and energy of the recording process,” she said at the time.

Frank Ocean isn’t by any means the private person he’s often accused of being. When it comes to music, he keeps schtum. But when events or feelings matter, his Tumblr page becomes an outlet for eloquent verdicts and emotional outpourings. His reactions to the Orlando shootings (“Many hate us and wish we didn’t exist”) and Prince’s passing (“I’m not even gonna say rest in peace because it’s bigger than death”) interrupted a vow of silence. It might be true that he dislikes interviews or public appearances, but that might have more to do with creative control than a calculated vow of secrecy.

That said, there are few examples of musicians staying this quiet for so long. Even Adele, another vanguard of secrecy when the going gets tough, went on record saying: “I'm just f**king waiting for Frank f**king Ocean to come out with his album. It's taking so f**king long.” Radiohead like to play the waiting game, but even their members have a habit of giving progress reports. Not since 2013 – when Ocean told Zane Lowe on BBC Radio 1 “I’m 10, 11 songs into this next thing” – has he uttered a word about this new record. This goes a long way to explaining why so many are engrossed in dull, repetitive wood-cutting. But there’s cause for celebration in his sheer refusal to play the game. It’s easy to perceive his latest move as an arty, stuffy way of making a very simple point. And in a way, that’s exactly what this carpentry livestream is - a show of artistic muscle that could probably be compressed into a short statement. Still, when Boys Don’t Cry eventually lands, it’s going to be all the more rewarding. Good things come to those who wait, and it’s a motto that’s easy to forget when on a constant hunt for the next article, television show, album and daily obsession.

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