Frank Ocean and the burden of perfectionism | How long is too long to wait for an album?

After almost a six-and-a-half year wait since Frank Ocean’s Blonde, Millie O’Brien explores how long is too long to wait for a new record.

Frank Ocean

After almost a six-and-a-half year wait since Blonde, and a few cryptic messages as to his next album, Millie O’Brien delves into the waiting game of being a Frank Ocean fan. How long is too long to wait for a new record?

With the recent announcement of Frank Ocean’s headlining slot in the 2023 Coachella lineup, the conversation on every music buff’s lips is if this is the year Frank Ocean finally drops some new music.

To add fuel to the fire, his latest merch drop of ‘Blonded’ posters last week featured a vague message on the back, stating “The Recording Artist” is wanting to move away from putting out singles to “more durational bodies of work”. Of course, this led to a fan spiral of excitement once more, which was met equally with a fair deal of scepticism over whether this longer-form project is in imminent action. After all, this is Frank Ocean we’re talking about.

The infamous Blonde/Endless swindle saw Frank conjuring up the perfect exit from his Def Jam deal in 2016, whilst maintaining majority ownership over his second studio album. Free from the exploitative shackles of a rigid record deal, the singer has since hinted at his return several times, only to repeatedly retract pretty hastily.

Frank Ocean

Photo: Jamie McCarthy

For instance, in 2019, when he dropped singles ‘DHL’ and ‘In My Room’, they arrived with cryptic album artwork, seemingly easter-egging that they were part of a greater collection – which of course, we never ended up hearing. Or take the rumours of his 2020 dance music album, paired with club nights and vinyl releases, which sadly came to halt due to the pandemic and was never picked back up once normal life recommenced.

This outward indecisiveness almost shatters the mystique of what’s to come, mainly out of a gradual lack of trust in these glints of hope. On top of this, the drop of his jewellery brand Homer, new episodes of his Blonded radio show and talk of the singer directing an A24 film have just felt like distractions, seemingly to do with anything other than putting out new music.

The die-hard fans want their next Channel Orange or Blonde and the wait is justifiably getting too excruciating. So, why is Frank Ocean’s hiatus so prolonged?

It does go without saying there should never be a timestamp on artistic expression. The modern music industry cracks the whips on artists to be constantly churning out new music which can often easily cause them to burn out. In the money-making machine, patience is not a virtue, and you can only praise Frank for getting out of there.

Frank Ocean

Yet nearly seven years on from Blonde, I can’t help but wonder if all this freedom has now led to a freedom to faff? The term ‘faff’ isn’t used here to undermine that Frank is still creating behind closed doors – on aforementioned fashion and other creative pursuits – but to emphasise the time passing in the pursuit of perfection.

British singer-songwriter-producer James Blake recently spoke on Theo Von’s podcast, discussing the blatant “crime” of “hundreds and hundreds” of incredible songs he’s heard in the studio that have never, and will never, come out.

One common reason he cites is simply “not being bothered” to revisit the song as “they missed their moment”. I wince to imagine the amount of Frank Ocean tracks that haven’t seen the light of day due to this potential dragging-of-feet.

By Parkinson’s Law, it’s human nature to work more productively with an impending deadline. As the old saying goes: diamonds are made under pressure. So when that’s taken away, understandably, one can enter an abyss of toying with new ideas, never really seeing them through, because you simply don’t have to. Then, naturally, they pass their expiry and are tossed aside.

Blake also attributes a reason for musicians not releasing new music to a crisis of confidence felt by many artists, whether it’s the “promo not working out”, or an A&R or friend saying they don’t like it; as a result, it “turns them off it or they develop negative association with that song”.

This sensitivity is totally understandable. After initial commercial and cultural success, to deliver a project of such high standards again can feel unattainable. As more time passes with radio silence, the pedestal raises even higher for what’s to follow next, especially when it comes to adding to a discography as sanctified as Frank’s.

On top of that, impatient fans get increasingly agitated and aren’t afraid to express it on Twitter. Frank Ocean fans can really be the wildest of the bunch, collectively mobbing the singer online at any given opportunity, as though it’s their civic duty to nag.

Sometimes the insistent demands to “drop the album” can teeter on plain greed. Living in the age of uber-consumerism, with a constant on-demand access to music (both new and old), can spoil fans with a sense of entitlement. Unfortunately, Frank Ocean doesn’t technically owe us anything new. However, the fear of letting down these hounding fans must be intensely intimidating, so not releasing can be a position of solace.

Frank Ocean

Photo: Matt Winkelmeyer

By contrast, the conversation between release and reception should be more welcomed than shied away from. At the end of the day, there’s always going to be criticism from a cult fanbase regardless of what you put out. Even Channel Orange and Blonde had a share of bad reviews during initial release, before they entered their zeitgeist status in collective cultural memory. Another adage – don’t let perfect be the enemy of good – springs to mind.

In this state of intense curation, maybe it’s time to place emphasis on both quality and quantity, rather than one over the other; artists that don’t hold back on releases might be the ones getting it right. King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard dropped five albums over the course of 2022, for instance, whilst SAULT’s bout of five albums dropped simultaneously in November last year gave fans plenty to dissect.

SZA’s most recent album SOS is also a great example. As an album, sure it doesn’t offer the intimate wholeness that her debut album CTRL possesses, but it’s a catalogue of 23 SZA songs that fans are grateful to pick and choose from, after waiting on new work for five years. A fair few that might be misses to me are hits to the next SZA stan, from a project that has received great commercial success and cultural praise whichever way you spin it.

Ultimately, there’s no right or wrong way of releasing. Frank Ocean has earned his ‘genius’ top-tier status for a reason and is without a doubt a perfectionist when it comes to honing his craft. If he’s after making “durational bodies of work” preceding his previous two albums, then understandably this isn’t going to come into fruition overnight.

Frank Ocean

It’s just important to advocate once in a while for the impatient but nevertheless loyal fans and look out for them in their purgatory state of waiting for an album.

On the bright side for the Frank Ocean cult, this Coachella slot dispels any retirement rumours (for now at least) and perhaps is our light at the end of the tunnel. Stay strong comrades.

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