Just when Frank Ocean stopped being an RnB artist and became a cultural icon is unclear. It certainly wasn’t in the days of ‘Nostalgia, Ultra‘, his first mixtape. If you were really clued in around 2011, you might have heard Ocean singing about Coachella (when it still mattered) on the first, compelling single of his solo career, ‘Novacane‘. On it, he portrayed the sort of debaucherous, drug-fueled, sex-surreal lyrical landscape that he would go on to paint in vivid technicolour on ‘Channel Orange’ the next year. ‘Channel Orange‘ was about as close to a perfect, postmodern RnB album as there has ever been, and for it, Ocean rightfully won the Best Urban Contemporary Album at the 2013 Grammys. But Urban Contemporary, whatever that is, does not get you breathless hagiography. Nor does winning an award that flows down one of the arbitrary tributaries of the increasingly out-of-touch awards ceremony lend itself to iconography. If his cultural cachet wasn’t hurt by a four year absence from the public gaze, it certainly didn’t help, either.
It likely had something to do with ‘Blonde’, then, his challenging follow-up to ‘Orange’ that played with the gender and sexual concepts he had first explored in the liner notes to his debut and pushed his already progressive musical approach further still. Somehow, between 2012 and 2016, Frank Ocean became the everyman for artistic expression. He could dye his hair whatever colour he liked that day. He released a visual album when everyone was waiting, hungry, for an audio album. His father sued him for $14 million over claims he was homophobic when Ocean was growing up. Apart from the kind of hilarious ‘do not smoke marijuana’ imperative, the message at the core of ‘Blonde’ interlude, ‘Be Yourself’ seemed to reign supreme. Despite being a complex character with more artistic integrity in his right pinky than most of the Top 40, Ocean quickly became an empty vessel into which the marginalized, disenfranchised and otherwise Other could pour their hopes, desires, fears, anger. That tshirt moment was perhaps peak Ocean.
Far be it from us to assume that the unassuming, counter-culture cultural staple would take up his mantle happily, continuing to do groundbreaking things in the way we’d quickly become accustomed to. Notwithstanding his long-time-coming but apparently sudden clout, Frank Ocean was never going to not do anything he wanted to do. So it is that he crops up on Odd Future leader Tyler The Creator’s new album, has come to be allude to throughout the great black comedy, ‘Insecure’, and late last month released ‘Provider’. More a sketch than a structured, polished track, its seemingly haphazard construction is captivating. As a chicken-egg provocation, I’m not sure whether Frank Ocean is interesting enough that I am happy to listen to his disjointed fantasy-babble or Frank Ocean is interesting because I am happy to listen to his disjointed fantasy-babble. In any event, the world he casually cultivates on ‘Provider’, shark-infested, gravity-defying and spliff-influenced is, as with the slapdash musicality of it and against all odds, intriguing enough to listen to on repeat. Maybe that is what got Frank Ocean to where he is today: despite us and it all, he just plugs right on, doing whatever the fuck he wants to do.
Frank Ocean – Provider