Let Frank Ocean Live

Frank Ocean
Frank Ocean in 2012 (credit: Ole Haug – olehaug.com)

Frank Ocean has spent the days before the release of Friday-due Boys Don’t Cry in a wood shop, broadcast in black and white, a room whose colors only the secluded singer can see. He is sawing up, what, a staircase? Speakers? Does it matter? He has been trying to teach us something: about patience, about the time and skill it takes to make a piece of work.

Boys Don’t Cry was supposed to come out last year, or at least it was announced for some July: assuming he was talking about the one on the current calendar was the mistake, one that led to months of demands, entitlement and jokes on social media. Ocean said nothing, and now it’s about to be here, twelve months and a week later.

Ocean’s two releases so far have been game-changers: the free album-as-mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra was huge enough to get his dithering label’s attention and a second advance, the first time that’s happened (in public) since Wilco uploaded Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and cashed a second Warners check. Channel Orange was such a white-hot official debut it essentially inspired a new Grammy category, “Urban Contemporary Album”—which Ocean won, naturally, over rival Chris Brown.

Before Ocean, née Christopher Breaux, was a star under his own name, he was a hired-gun songwriter: a line of work that left him funded but otherwise unhappy. When fame came, and quickly, tabloid life didn’t suit Ocean, whether beefing with Brown or a swirl of attention around an Instagram photo with rumored boyfriend Willy Cartier.

“Lol y’all are crazy. Remember, everyone goes to the grave,” he wrote when the Cartier photo made headlines. “Let me live.” We expect it now, but a few years back, social drama hadn’t quite become a pop marketing requirement yet: for an artist who came up on Tumblr, Ocean just wasn’t made for these times.

At those Grammys in 2013, Ocean performed “Forrest Gump”: a low-key, almost dorky ballad evoking the image of a bearded, shit-covered Tom Hanks in a fairly landmark same-sex love song. There were no fireworks, no P!nk hanging from a trapeze held by an elephant or whatever. It wasn’t so much rebellious as it was disinterested: not in the music. Never that. Just in all the rest of it. Whatever Boys Don’t Cry brings, it will shout one thing as it shakes off the dust: let him live.