The most surprising thing about Frank Ocean’s return is that it hasn’t ended.
Mercurial and independent, Ocean is the sort of artist that doesn’t seem to need an audience—he could be just as happy singing to himself as a crowd. And so, after releasing Endless and Blonde last year, another hiatus, like the four years post-Channel Orange, wouldn’t have come as a shock.
Instead, he stuck around to work with Calvin Harris on a Picasso-referencing contender for song of the summer, and launch a radio show with Beats 1 in which he patters in his New Orleans accent about this and that, interviews Jay Z, and drops loosies that are better than other folks’ album singles. Five episodes of Blonded Radio, which seems to follow no set schedule, have aired since it premiered in February, and the three new songs he’s debuted—“Chanel”, “Biking,” and “Lens”—are discretely excellent.
“Chanel” has a more refined version of the free-association songwriting heard on “Futura Free”; it’s boastful and candid and has one of the best opening lines of the year: “My guy pretty like a girl.”
“Biking” is a wistful summer song, a style Ocean excels at. Built upon acoustic guitar and scalloped drums, it's more accessible than any single from Blonde. The meditative thinking unlocked by repetitive motion, by the hard-working peaks and coasting valleys of a bike ride, occasions wonder about marriage, children, and the limits of self-reliance. “When’s the last time I asked for some help that I couldn’t get from nobody else?”
Money isn’t far from Ocean's mind on both “Chanel” and “Biking,” and on the latter he barks and raves about the cash and what it’s affording him. The new money must feel incredible, but I wonder about the effect it’s having on Frank's conception of responsibility—for himself and the people he loves. I wonder if he doesn’t feel heavier in some way. Burdened by possible futures. Less able to depart.
“Lens” is the lightest of the trio, more empty space than song. (The beat builds so slowly, I spent my first listen waiting for something that never arrived.) Its lyrics resolve the spare tension by ending on the feeling of being seen. His grandfather Lionel, aunt Janet, and friend Matt have a lens on him. They see him, and surely they see him differently than we can.
Ocean's visibility creates a strange and diffuse sort of anticipation, altogether different from that pre-Endless and Blonde excitement. It used to be that he was the adored uncle who disappeared for long stretches of time—maybe a year or more—only to show up unexpectedly outside the house, engine of a beautiful new car you’d never glimpsed before ticking and cooling, a package tucked under his arm for you to unwrap. Now he’s become something like a cousin who lives nearby but is prone to wandering. He shows up more often than that uncle, always with a story, but you won’t quite let yourself count on his presence in your life. You’d know it would burn if you let yourself become too accustomed, because, after all, he could be gone tomorrow, no forwarding address and an unpaid phone bill that left his mobile dead.
On his Blonded Radio mixes, Ocean plays music from tragic downtown original Arthur Russell, UK Bandcamp act Bare Pale, French decadent Sébastian Tellier. His ear is impeccable and his taste wide-ranging. Hearing him transition from Guided By Voices to Grandaddy to Russell gives me the same thrill I felt upon discovering that he’d read Christopher Isherwood’s Mr. Norris Changes Trains.
That ability to remain private even in the open is a rare one, and though he’s sharing more of his work, there’s no knowing Ocean completely. There’s no anticipating the next move, no telling whether these new songs will accrete into something larger, or if these broadcasts will culminate in a new full-length. We’re watching him now, more closely than we could before, and still we see precious little. It’s enough.