Nostalgia, Undone: On Frank Ocean and Waiting for More

Israel Daramola takes a look at the new releases from Frank Ocean and how nostalgia can taint our vision.
By    September 20, 2016

Art by Kim Erlandsen

Israel Daramola’s favorite Dylan record is Blond(e) on Blond(e).

I have to admit a little deflation on my part when both Endless, Frank Ocean’s 45-minute visual album and Blond, the proper album, finally came out four years after Channel Orange. There was a part of me rooting for Frank to go full Jay Electronica and keep hinting at an album that would never come out. If for no other reason than the fact that his absence has been a wonderful case study in fan entitlement and disregard for anything other than shiny, new things to distract them from their own selves. To actually have a new Frank Ocean album feels anticlimactic before even pressing play on it.

Once you actually do listen, what you’re treated to is ultimately a glittering and cold referendum on loneliness and the nostalgia we hold onto for comfort. Neither Blond nor Endless see a man returning to the embrace of pop stardom; instead what we get is almost a dare. Do you want to deal with the memories that keep him up at night and the actual music he wants to make? You really want Frank Ocean Back?

Here’s the thing about being blonde: you are valued and dismissed in equal measure. The stereotype of beauty in western culture says that blonde is the most beautiful hair color and, as a result, belongs to the most beautiful people; yet, we also denigrate these same people as stupid or sexually promiscuous by nature. It’s almost as if we can’t love something without, also, resenting it. The decision to name the album Blond (but also Blonde), plus the artsy album cover depicting him in blonde hair, head covered by his hand, is pure Tumblr kitsch sure, but the color blonde does come with this baggage of being both the ideal and the ridiculed. Surely a guy who’s consistently  praised for his art and torn down for his disappearing acts could understand that.

Endless dropped on August 19th exclusively on Apple Music, just like everything eventually will be, including the announcement of all of our deaths. Endless is essentially a makeshift What Dreams May Come, in which Frank Ocean builds a shoddy staircase for our amusement over mostly half-realized songs. The music of Endless feels like the most traditional version of a Frank Ocean album: the earnest attempts at high-pitched serenading, the cool and disaffected rapping, the tormented, meandering “I have to sing because I don’t know how else to express this feeling” singing; it’s all here in its drowsy, gorgeous, heartbreaking and incredibly pretentious glory.

The visual component of Endless is mostly uninteresting unless you just feel like critiquing the construction of Frank “The Tool Man” Ocean’s stairway to Heaven. The entire spectacle is pure art school deepness that’s now commonplace, and honestly, it’s a bore. The actual music, like the stairs, is well done, intricately made but still incomplete. The songs on Endless are unfinished sketches, blurring together to make a semblance of a whole that’s never really whole.

When my sisters and I were kids, we used to pretend to be musicians and proceed to make one-off, rough drafts of songs that would be on our album. Endless feels like a much more thought out version of this with Frank bouncing around different ways to get out his many feelings: the loves he’s experienced, the nostalgia for and from youth and yes, of course, the facing of his own sexuality and desires.

Before, I referred to Frank’s normal singing style as a need to express his feelings and Endless is the strongest example of this: moans and runs and nonverbal croons are littered throughout as though to push out all the baggage of the mind in one fell swoop. It’s no wonder that guests like Sampha, James Blake and Jazmine Sullivan show up—experts at conveying so much euphoria and aching in just the falsettos and dulcet tones of their voices.

The thing about Channel Orange is that it’s an exorcism of sort—not of demons, but of secrets and pain. At the height of hype for Frank Ocean as a new pop star and R&B prince, Ocean used his debut record to come clean. The album, along with the infamous Tumblr letter, was a confessional about Frank’s love of a man who didn’t love him back. It was brave, inspiring and incredibly dangerous of him to put himself out there in the spotlight and in a business that is only progressive in theory. Hollywood progressiveness is rewarding Macklemore for rapping about thinking he was gay for drawing rather than even listening to the actual voices of the LGBTQ in music. Despite this, Frank had a lot to get off his chest and it was his art that allowed him to comfortably do so. And then he disappeared.

Blond doesn’t have the confessional attitude of Channel Orange—it’s free of that obligation—instead wading in the aftermath of loneliness, dancing between a strange acceptance of it and a desperate longing for connection.

This album is filled with an incredible loneliness, but not a terrifying one. It’s more content with its version of isolation—as though it was always inevitable—even though Frank tries to hold on to some connections to his past lives. When he sing-raps, “I brought trees to blow through, but it’s just me and no you/ stayed up til my phone died” on “Solo,” you can feel the nights of isolation and the hours spent lost in the cobwebs of the past. He has shed the burden of truth and now must live with only the fact of the love that is unattainable to him.

Frank Ocean is R&B’s most tortured artist: his sexiness is not sleazy or romantic in the way so much of the genre has trained you to expect; instead it’s uncomfortably personal, vulnerable. There’s no game given or serenading happening; it’s all diary entry and longing for human contact—even if there’s no love. Blond is sexual, but not particularly sexy, it’s heart is big and full of love yet still drowning in sorrow. It’s queer and lost in nostalgia, boundlessly hopeful amidst all of the gloom. For Frank, art is the only recourse. And in his art—with all its pretentious styling and Tumblr aesthetic—there’s an escape from the pain of reality and a chance to relive a rose-colored past.

Nostalgia is a trap: it’s a house built on selective memory and an inability to live in the moment. Nostalgia tells you that you’ll never be as happy as you were yesterday, that the relationship you hated was secretly perfect, and that the music you used to listen to is far superior. Nostalgia strikes me the most after rejections and busted potential relationships. When you’re convinced love won’t happen for you in the future, you reflect on the past. The mistakes made, the good times and the old desires: it’s all there swirling in your mind haunting you. You get stuck. Frank knows this and articulates it better than anyone: “Staying with you when I didn’t have a address/ fuckin’ on you when I didn’t have a mattress,” he reflects solemnly on “Nights.” Those were the good days in his mind and those are the memories you latch onto like the drugs that numb you.

Frank’s appeal as an artist lies in his mystery. Whether it’s performative or just a real case of keeping everyone at a distance, Frank’s aloofness about his fame has frustrated and invigorated the people who love him. The control we wish to have over his career and decisions is matched only by the resentment we feel about him or any other artist who chooses when they feel like making art rather than pandering to the base.

We think of his music as his job when it’s really just his outlet. I don’t actually believe he purposely waited this long to release a new album, based on his leaving Def Jam immediately after Endless and Blond’s release. Regardless, it’s clear from listening to both Endless and Blond that Frank was more interested in musical therapy than the next great pop record. He poured his soul out on record in his perfected hippie, internet cool auteur style and then, once again, he was gone.

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