The question, born both from anticipation and impatience, was always what has Frank Ocean been doing in the four years since his debut, “Channel Orange,” reframed the look and scope of modern R&B.
He deliberately evaded the public eye. There was no way to know what he was doing with the time.
All there was to go on was vague hints — an update that he’d started working on new music a year after “Channel Orange,” a tease for an ambitious follow-up to that album expected in July 2015 called “Boys Don’t Cry” that had “two versions, twooo versions” along with a companion magazine, then when July came and went, a coy post of a library slip stamped with dates that had passed without a trace of the album.
As it turned out, he was riding through the suburbs of Tokyo in tuned-up Porsches, partying in England in custom-built BMWs, playing in the mud in Mississippi, casting models in Senegal, and stargazing in Mexico. He was also recording — in Tokyo, New York, Miami, Los Angeles, London, and Paris, he explained — but Twitter didn’t know. No one did.
Ocean’s return Friday via the visual album “Endless,” streamed on Apple Music, was disorienting. The live stream had been up since early August, its meaning difficult to decipher — Ocean popped in and out of a New York warehouse, intermittently working on a wood-shop project. It wasn’t necessarily more clear when the stream became a 45-minute reveal of 19 new songs, seemingly partial sketches and dangling thoughts, as Ocean built a staircase.
The world seemed to speed up while he was gone. Timelines scrolled ceaselessly. Artists seemed to make music to keep up with attention spans that lasted as long as the next tweet — Future with seven projects in a year, Drake with three in 14 months. But the visual was a very straightforward metaphor for Ocean working at his own pace.
What ultimately arrived on Saturday, the Apple Music release “Blond,” is the fully-formed payoff, a thought that took four years to complete. It’s an ambitious creative extension of “Channel Orange,” one that carves new territory. Along with it, a print companion arrived at pop-up shops in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and London, a physical copy of the album (spelled “Blonde” as a distinction) tucked inside. Between the visual album, the proper release and the magazine, Ocean created a multiplatform experience that not even the insatiable social-media appetite could digest immediately.
Try unpacking album opener “Nikes,” where a wormy, pitched-up Ocean croons in one corner of the beat’s consciousness, while another Ocean, syrup-screwed and pitched down, talks over him from another. Songs like “Skyline To” and “Good Guy” are at once personal and distant, specific and vague. The literary and poetic writing that pushed Ocean past pop is still razor sharp.
On “Solo,” one of the album’s showstoppers, he’s poignant: “There’s a bull and a matador dueling in the sky/ in hell, in hell, there’s heaven.” On “Nights,” he’s pithy: “Every night [expletive] every day up, every day patches the night up.”
Time might have pushed along, but it was obvious how much Ocean’s rich, detailed, and urgent storytelling had been missed once it was here again.
There’s an undeniable allure in the incomplete, the illusion of an unending apex. The entire net-soul subgenre was essentially on D’Angelo’s back after 2000’s “Voodoo,” but he walked away and spent 15 years secluded — at times dealing with personal and legal issues — despite the persistent tug to return. Lauryn Hill went home with more Grammys than her arms could hold in 1998; since then, people have pined for her music nostalgically while she’s grappled with fame, searched for deeper spirituality, and fought with managers and the IRS. Andre 3000 outgrew Outkast in 2003 and flirted with the idea of a solo project, but instead has spent the past 13 years dropping feature verses on whims: always impressing, never fully committing.
For each, unique talents made absence all the more frustrating. But when time eventually pulled the curtain back, it revealed humans with issues and insecurities. 3000 appears midway through “Blond” (he’s made cameos on both of Ocean’s projects), wondering aloud on “Solo (Reprise)” about the time that’s passed without him, and whether the wheel-spinning was worth it: “So-lo that I am no rookie but feel like a kid/ lookin’ at the other kids/ with astonishment, while I’m on punishment, watching the summer come close to an end.”
In some ways Ocean is a kindred spirit to those artists; if the wait actually had been endless, the void would have been indelible. Once all his work had been let go, Ocean went to Tumblr to thank everyone — “especially those of you who never let me forget I had to finish. Which is basically every one of y’all.”
Because sometimes, the wait can actually be endless.Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.