Culture Crush

Art Can Wait: The Frank Ocean Complex

Designer Geoff Stump dishes on the exhilarating (and exhausting) saga that led up to Frank Ocean’s Blonde

Imagine a scenario where a musician announces a new record, misses multiple release dates, disappears from the public eye and remains silent for over a year….and then abruptly releases two records in a 24-hour span that hit the top of the charts.

While this situation may seem off-kilter, this was the past 17 months in the life of the avant-garde R&B singer Frank Ocean. The media campaign and promotion for his new record Blonde might have everything we’re not used to as consumers, but the results can lead us to one thing: to share less and create better.

Let’s rewind a bit. The year is 2011 and Ocean is creatively stuck. He had signed a recording contract two years prior with Island/Def Jam Records but felt as if they were never going to feature him. He took matters into his own hands and released his first record entitled nostalgia, ULTRA through a free ZIP file download on his personal Tumblr page.

The release had no promotion, no videos or singles, no marketing and no backing from his record label. This was a risky move for the relatively unknown young artist, going against the grain so early in his career. But with the help of some artist friends in the industry, nostalgia, ULTRA quickly gained traction on social media and became a swift—albeit slightly underground—critical success.

On the heels of nostalgia, ULTRA Ocean skyrocketed to the top of the R&B game, soon working with top level stars such as Beyonce, Jay Z and Kayne West. In 2012 he released his second record in channel ORANGE, which peaked at #2 on the Billboard Top 200 chart and earned Ocean a Grammy for “Best Urban Contemporary Album.”

For Ocean, things were at an all-time high. Riding the wave of two successful albums, major collaborations, and awards, many wondered what was next for Ocean but only he knew: sustained silence.

From 2012 through 2015, Ocean slid into reclusion. What transpired in this timeframe is a clinic in, purposefully or not, teasing the masses:

  • After the channel ORANGE boom in 2012, the collective question: what’s next?
  • April 6th, 2015: Ocean posts a photo of himself on his Tumblr with the caption “#july2015 #igottwoversions”. Anticipation atrophied into anguish as Ocean promptly disappeared once again.
  • February 11th, 2016: Ocean makes his first public appearance in a year, by attending a listening party for Kayne West’s album The Life of Pablo, on which Ocean is featured. Speculation begins anew.
  • May 2016: Singer/songwriter James Blake, who had worked with Ocean previously, touches on new Ocean material in an interview with Entertainment Weekly. “I can’t [share any details] because I don’t know any,” Blake said. “Nobody knows. You could probably talk to almost anybody involved in that record and I’m not sure anybody would be able to tell you what’s happening.”
  • July 2nd, 2016: A post appears on Ocean’s Tumblr titled “Late.” The image shows a due-date slip for a library book with a string of dates, the last one being July 2016. Nothing materializes in July.
  • August 1st, 2016: A mysterious livestream hosted by Apple Music appears on Ocean’s website.
  • August 6th, 2016: The rumored date for Ocean’s new album, Boys Don’t Cry. The alleged Apple Music exclusive never arrives.
  • August 18th, 2016: Ocean releases a visual album entitled Endless, pretty much out of nowhere, as a soundtrack accompaniment to the video that had streamed on his website.
  • August 19th, 2016: Ocean releases Blonde, the follow-up to channel ORANGE. Everyone exhales.

Blonde immediately hit number one on iTunes upon release, receiving critical acclaim along with commercial success to the tune of 275,000 copies sold.

The questions that this equally exhilarating and exhausting goose chase brings up: did Frank Ocean create a long form of viral marketing or did he cash in on the increasing connectivity of consumers? Was this album release planned or was it a social experiment? I think it’s actually a little bit of both.

By sharing the original details of releasing a product, Ocean created a dialogue for his fan base to discuss the potential product in both positive and negative capacities. We’ve seen other artists or groups “break the internet” for better or worse with surprise releases: Beyoncé with Lemonade (2016), Radiohead with In Rainbows (2007), and U2 performing a hostile takeover of iPhones everywhere with Songs of Innocence (2014). But the Ocean saga feels different.

He invited the public in and then shut them out. He allowed them to feel the gamut of emotions throughout the 15 months between the announcement and final product, and by doing, fans became more invested in that final product. A simple supply-and-demand-like situation based on pure emotion proves that making people wait for something is a strain on our short attention spans, but it can be successful as long as the content is good.

Frank Ocean had a story to tell, but instead became the story himself.

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