Let’s be honest. It’s been a disappointing year for major rap releases so far.
There have been a few exceptions, of course. Young Thug’s So Much Fun was rewarded with the commercial success it deserves; Dreamvilles’s Revenge of the Dreamers III is better than a compilation album has any business being; Tyler, the Creator’s IGOR gets better with each listen (even though he acknowledges it isn’t a traditional rap album); and DaBaby’s two albums make him the clear front-runner for rap’s Rookie of the Year.
Heavy-hitters like Drake, Kendrick Lamar, and JAY-Z have been noticeably quiet, though. And with J. Cole’s announcement that The Fall Off won’t arrive until 2020, there’s a lack of major hip-hop albums left on the calendar for the rest of 2019. So, who is going to take advantage of the dry spell and drop an unexpected rap album in the fourth quarter?
What if it’s Frank Ocean?
The world knows Frank as a singer, but he’s been showing signs of his desire to be a rapper for years. After show-stealing verses on songs like Earl Sweatshirt’s “Sunday,” and ASAP Mob’s “RAF,” the whispers have been getting louder: When is Frank Ocean going to shift gears and release a full rap album?
Now might be the time. Over the past two weeks, Frank has dropped two songs, “DHL” and “In My Room,” and they’re both clear departures from what we’ve heard on Blonde, Endless, Channel Orange, and Nostalgia, Ultra. His sweet melodies and lush production have been traded in for something a little more raw and dirty. It’s more free-form. Oh, and he’s rapping.
During a first listen of “DHL,” my immediate reaction was: Oh shit, he’s been listening to Playboi Carti, hasn’t he? Over a hypnotic beat from German producer Boys Noize, Frank gets in his impressionist rap bag, slurring a couple nearly indecipherable bars in the first verse, similar to how Carti has been using his baby voice flow. The song adopts a vibes-over-everything philosophy, so complicated lyricism takes a backseat here, but Frank does clean things up in the second verse, as he flexes with lines like, “Oh he TX/Ecstasy rollin/You see my bag it's swollen/Rimowa I can't even fold it/I drop you a pin like I'm bowling.”
A week after “DHL” arrived, Frank dropped “In My Room.” It’s more polished, and there’s a little more melody, but he’s still rapping all over it. This one’s just as horny and druggy as the first, but it leaves even more room for Frank to talk his shit. “Richard Mille, look at my ears, flooded with diamonds/Look at my skills, running through blocks like 49ers/Forty-nine diamonds, stuffed in my bracelet,” he raps “That cost a whop, that cost a whopper/And it ain't new, I had a knot at John Ehret in my locker.”
Hearing Frank rap about diamonds and Rimowa bags, you get the feeling he’s been waiting years for an opportunity to spit like this at length. His 2012 “Oldie” verse first showed the world that Frank, the rapper, could hang with the best, as he showed a naturally calm confidence behind the mic. This talent reared its head again on “Sunday,” where he held his own alongside Odd Future’s most celebrated lyricist, Earl Sweatshirt. Since then, Frank has picked his spots as a rapper, saving his bars to use as accent marks on Blonde (the second verse on “Nights” is a standout) and one-offs like “Biking.”
But if Frank Ocean is ever going to release a full rap album, now is the time. There has yet to be an official announcement about a forthcoming project, but clues on the cover artwork for “DHL” and “In My Room” seem to hint that these are just two songs from a larger series of 13. The most obvious common thread that ties the two tracks together is that Frank is rapping all over each. If this trend continues on the rest of the songs, we’ll finally have our Frank Ocean rap album.
When Boys Noize spoke with Complex about the making of “DHL,” he revealed that he first met Frank at an ASAP Rocky studio session for “Babushka Boi.” Rocky, of course, has been closely tied to Frank’s experiments as a rapper. “I remember doing the ‘Raf’ verses [with ASAP Rocky], and at the time I was practicing rap, practicing structuring verses, practicing flow, trying to get better at doing it,” Frank recently told W Magazine. “I was writing a lot of verses.” So did a winter 2018 session with ASAP Rocky reignite his interest in rapping, and inspire the direction of this next album? When we asked if those sessions produced more music, Boys Noize was interestingly tight-lipped: “I guess it’s going to be a big surprise. I can’t tell anything about that, I’m afraid.”
Of course, a pivot to rap from one of this generation’s most celebrated singers won’t be met with unanimous praise. There are already rumblings of disappointment about “DHL” and “In My Room” from fans who wanted more of the melodies and meticulous songwriting they fell in love with on Frank’s first four projects. But as he’s proven in the past with maddeningly long wait times between albums, Frank Ocean doesn’t seem too concernedwith satisfying the desires of every fan. He’s an artist who does what he wants. And right now, it seems he wants to rap.