Thinkin (Too Much) Bout You: Frank Ocean Doesn’t Owe Us a Damn Thing

In case you’ve spent the last week living under a rock (in which case, can I chill with you until after the election? Yes? No?), this week’s big music news is that Frank Ocean is finally, allegedly, set to release his second album Boys Don’t Cry on Friday. This is the first significant new music we’ve heard from Frank since 2012’s Channel ORANGE, a widely beloved, critical smart bomb of ornate, vaguely futurist, soulful R&B. Channel ORANGE wasn’t praised just as being musically brilliant, but culturally important–in the wind-up to the album’s released, Ocean penned a note included in the liner notes about how his first love was a man. This was a big thing in 2012, not just because it was metatextual information and representation for queer, black men, but because it permanently altered the perception of already personal sounding songs like “Thinkin Bout You,” “Forrest Gump,” and “Bad Religion.” That was all in 2012. Frank’s been fairly quiet in the meantime, with news of a follow-up only coming to surface in April of last year, saying only that a new album and publication were coming by July, likely titled Boys Don’t Cry. But then July 2015 came went without so much as a single measure of new music by Ocean, leading to the popularity of “Frank Ocean has disappeared” meme.

Now look, I know as well as anyone that a meme’s just a meme, but these things don’t take off without some real feelings involved. Channel ORANGE was an emotionally intimate album that resonated with a lot of people, and when Frank’s deadline last year came and went without a borderline-shell game app, frenzied tweetstorms about exes and fashion shows, defensive statements, or any acknowledgment from his people, folks felt abandoned, hence the jokes that even I’ve made. I want to listen to Boys Don’t Cry. And I know I’m not alone in that.

But shit’s got an upper-limit. While I want Boys Don’t Cry so badly that I’d tolerate Apple Music’s abysmal interface to hear it even once, I would never be so crass as to argue that I or any other music fan deserve it. For all the jokes about how Frank’s left us and how dare he do that, there’s a contingent of fans and writers out there that feel truly, madly, deeply that it is their right to listen to new Frank Ocean. So I’ll say it plain.

Frank Ocean doesn’t owe you a thing.
Frank Ocean doesn’t owe me a thing.
Frank Ocean doesn’t owe us a thing.

Frank Ocean does probably owe his label heads a thing, but that’s neither here nor there.

The idea that artists and fans owe each other something routinely comes up when one party acts out against another–i.e. Father John Misty trying to finesse a concert meltdown into performance art or Death Grips’ entire career–but you’re only “owed” a record if the artist keeps your money for a preorder, which nope, isn’t the case here.

The idea that fans are “owed” an album is inane enough to cause me to short-circuit when trying to counter it, but let’s try. Setting aside “Because I really want it” as a reason fans are “owed” content from their faves, the most popular argument arises from the creator’s responsibility to create. At its heart, this argument boils down to the same thing taxpayers frequently tell Congress, and what my theater boss told me in college: “I’m not paying you for nothing; do your damn job.” I see the logic here: Frank, and any artist really, decided that music creation was going to be the way they made their way in the world, so quit stalling, knuckledown, and do it. But this argument misses the point. Be it in album sales, concert tickets, merch, or (technically) streaming revenue, we pay artists for their work when the work comes. We don’t have a “Pay $5 to Frank Ocean a month” subsidy for him to do fuck all, we paid him for Channel ORANGE because he made the album then. And as soon as he puts something else out with the potential to make me ache, feel close to someone, and pretend I’ve got a falsetto, I’ll pay him again. Part of creating is creating the best thing possible, and if that means taking more time, then that’s part of the process.

What’s bizarre about people leveling this argument against Frank is that he gets it: when Boys Don’t Cry failed to materialize last July, he withdrew from his headlining spot playing LA’s FYF Fest that August. I can’t see into his mind, but I can take a guess why: dude is an incredibly conscientious artist and, knowing the new material was in some form or fashion not ready, he opted out instead of capitalizing on old stuff (the unwritten “Don’t take big gigs without new goods” rule is why the Outkast reunion felt muted enthusiasm, and probably why LCD Soundsystem isn’t a bigger deal this year).

Going hand in hand with this, and part of why I feel fine giving Frank Ocean as much time as he needs, is a near total absence in trying to cash-in. In the 4 years since Channel ORANGE, he’s done a whopping five guest spots for non-Odd Future artists: A hook for a Jay Z deep-cut, a Beyonce collab, interludes for John Mayer and Kanye West, and a Diplo/The Clash curio for Converse Shoes. He hasn’t been dangling an album over us on social media while chasing down splashy looking features and like, pushing a movie career, but only come up recently to say that Calvin Klein makes a good undershirt. He’s not on any social media, he doesn’t do a lot of interviews or guest appearances, and I honestly think that’s how he wants to be. I look at his wobbly, earnest-art-student Grammy performance and bashful acceptance speech from that year, and I see a guy who’d rather have super deep conversations with his mom than be famous (sidenote: the shot of Frank’s mom and Tyler sitting together proves there are two kinds of happiness). If he takes some time to get it right, that’s fine; I truly believe he’s only taking this long to get it right. And even if not, fuck it, he still doesn’t owe me an album.

And lastly, y’all, it’s only been four years. Come on. I know that’s a big enough gap to mean something, but the distance between here and Mitt Romney’s political relevance is still inside the acceptable album wait time. No one yelled at D’Angelo for taking 14 years between Voodoo and Black Messiah, nor gotten on Maxwell for going 7 between records, or fussed at Erykah Badu for 5 between her last album and last year’s mixtape. No one wrote a trendpiece on what Radiohead, ostensibly the world’s biggest band, owes us for the 5 year gap between The King of Limbs and A Moon Shaped Pool, although that’s probably because no one was clamoring for Radiohead after Thom Yorke inflicted that solo album on us. Hell, Fiona Apple, whose last album was neck and neck with Channel ORANGE for “Best of 2012” accolades, has been even quieter than Frank has about new music.

If you’re jonesing, go dig into Black Messiah, Wildheart, Ego Death, The Electric Lady, Reality Show, Because the Internet, LP1, Sail Out, Malibu, Beauty Behind the Madness, Z, 3, or go listen to Channel ORANGE again; that’s what I’ve been doing all summer. So don’t worry, Boys Don’t Cry will happen, and even if it doesn’t, so what? Frank Ocean owes us an album far less than we owe him our gratitude for sharing his work with us.

But for real, Frank, can’t I be grateful sooner as opposed to later? Please?

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About bgibs122

I enjoy music and music culture; I hope you do, too.
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