What Is Time?
In both 'Endless' and 'Blond(e),' Frank Ocean grapples with mortality, floating between consciousness and psychedelics, faith and his intuition.
Timing is everything. Unless you’re Frank Ocean, or a fan of Mister Big Body of Water himself. His latest double presentation, Endless, features a livestream-turned-sleek recording of Frank, drills, wood panels and spray paint in hand, building a staircase for 140 hours. Much of what being a fan of Frank Ocean means trusting in his plan, even before it comes into fruition. There has to be a method to his madness: after all, Frank now exists at the top of the American cultural oeuvre, operating as a bridge between high art and the ordinary, and sometimes forgettable machinations of pop culture. Frank couldn’t be forgettable if he tried. He’s been regarded as an icon, an innovator, the voice of a generation with more questions than answers. His every move is memrised, shared obsessively, consumed during early morning hours, before the sun. A modern day Prince, mixed with Michael Jackson and John Lennon and Andre3000, says one tweet liked by the singer’s younger brother. (It’s well-intentioned, leave him alone.)
More than anything, Frank Ocean has become a barometer by which we—young and spoiled music fans—learn and learn again that patience is a virtue, and that it’s OK to take time with the process, reinventing and reimagining yourself along the way. The question, then, is what do we make of Frank? He breaks time, weaving through cosmic strings rather than black holes, a glimmer of light before abruptly fading again to darkness. Before our very eyes, Christopher Breaux blossomed into Frank Ocean; The Lonny Breaux Collection, his first collection of lovesick, experimental songs, are almost unrecognizable now. His voice is stronger, both in terms of complex narrative and literal vocal range. The anticipation and memes are, or were, half the fun, but Endless and Blond demand silence. The allure of Frank Ocean is his ability to kill the white noise without a word, allowing himself to be seen again. A person and spectacle alike.
In both Endless and Blond,—as well as specific cuts on nostalgia, ULTRA and Channel Orange—Frank grapples with mortality, floating between consciousness and psychedelics, faith and his intuition. His particular strain of storytelling has always been as much about self as it is about the other: his love interest(s), advice or observations on the world around him. Without falling into the trap of hyper-intellectualizing Frank, it is reasonable to sum him up as an experience in and of himself. His pen is his prize: even his concise opinions posted plainly on his personal, self-run Tumblr—Frank obviously no longer uses Twitter, Instagram or Snapchat, at least not publicly—are proof of Frank’s watchful existence during moments of prolonged silence. His words on the passing of Prince, or the tragic Orlando shooting, or Caitlyn Jenner’s first photoshoot as Caitlyn are all instances in which Frank talks to his followers as if they were lifelong friends in conversation, with gentleness and implied understanding. In a time where language of our conditions, our intersections, our battles is as fraught as it is overwhelming, Frank puts it simply. His perceived solitude softens the blow of our own. “I fucking know I fucked up,” he says on the first half of “Nights.” Amen, ameen.
Where Channel Orange was unambiguous in its songs about his blackness, love, money—”Crack Rock”, “Bad Religion”, “Super Rich Kids” respectively—Endless and Blond are more subdued, choosing to tell a story throughout rather than in increments. Where “Rushes To” ends with a question of how one can live in the word and light of God, “Futura Free” begins with a stunned praise at how far he’s come: he’s on, Mama, he’s on. Where a mother’s words of guidance on “Be Yourself” come to a cautionary close, his euphoric acid trip on “Solo” is a bright, hazy point of escapism. Frank’s story does not start at the beginning and likely won’t arrive to an end, but is a recounting of everything that happens in between. For Frank, time stands still, all held breath and melancholy. The music isn’t necessarily sad, or hurt, but an example of a voice that remains tender in spite of all that it’s endured. In Frank’s world, people leave as much as they enter, they love as much as they forget. “I came to visit ‘cause you see me like a UFO,” he sings to the object of his affection, as detached as he is enamoured. Even in love (or lust), Frank—and disciples of Frank’s word—crave an intimacy as vulnerable as it is tangible. But he’s stuck in his own head.
Much of Frank’s love songs are about a reckoning of his own capabilities as a lover, as a person, as a person surviving in this world, in his body, in his lived truths. “I’m not brave,” he repeats on “Siegfried”, but if Frank isn’t, who is? Blond and Endless are almost exclusively about the past, reminiscences made public once closure is attained. Tavia Nyong’o described the simultaneous urgency and pensive nature of Frank’s pen as a taking on of a different form through race, through time and through playing with the limits of survival. “...But spinning on blackness needn’t be just an image for depression, addiction, burn out, or malignancy. It could also be Ocean sidling up in an undercommons of prayer and malediction, where the singular soul brushes up against the dark night of the universe.” It’s through this interpretation that Frank’s work should be considered, if considered at all through the lens of political and diasporic identity. It is significant that Frank’s story is as much about time as it is displacement, as much about God as it is about chasing a god-feeling, as much about mindful consciousness as it is about temporarily floating in a dimension far, far away from reality. An addiction, by definition is, “an unusually great interest in something or a need to do or have something.” All Frank does is illuminate the crutches we all lean on to make sense of our worlds. If we have life, we may as well live, he says in so many words. “At least we did us perfect.”
Amani Bin Shikhan is a writer based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter.