Frank Ocean Triumphs Without Even Trying

Frank Ocean offered two vital and contradictory performances in 2017. On the main stage, he once more played the guy sitting this one out—there he was, canceling headlining performances at major festivals around the world, ghosting on expectant audiences. If he did appear, he was wearing headphones, sometimes sitting down, and avoiding all eye contact: He didn’t cultivate a crowd so much as gather eavesdroppers. This is a maddening standby of his, one his fans depend on even as it denies them a chance to be near their hero. Without his serene indifference to stardom and any of its attendant demands, he wouldn’t be their hero.

The second performance was sneakier, and cut deeper. In this one, he was an active agent, spreading his influence and the peculiar hum of his mind through a well-chosen handful of new tracks and guest spots. “Biking,” “Chanel,” “Lens,” “Provider”—these songs simply appeared in the world, offering no clear context or explanation. Many of them debuted without fanfare in the middle of his “blonded RADIO” show on Apple Music, a spontaneous and freeform platform where he showed his admiration for peers and positioned his work nested inside theirs. The songs didn’t presage an LP or EP of any sort; they didn’t spawn late-night performances or remixes. They just dripped into the world like a faucet that wasn’t quite wrenched shut.

Surprise music drops are old news in pop music by now, but Frank made the technique feel like an extension of his persona—insouciant and bored, a rich kid handing you the keys to his Porsche because he never drives it. Taken together, the songs feel like fragments of a whole, perhaps an EP he left in water until it broke apart and spread. They are of a piece, thematically and musically, taking the muted, glimmering murmur of Blonde into newer, freer spaces, with the borders left unshaded, and entire arrangements hinted at with a few sounds. They might not be his most resonant songs, or the most anthemic. But they are the purest distillation yet of his gnomic and enormous talent, which remains allergic to big statements, manifesting itself only in sidelong glances and digressions.

With these songs, he allows himself to doodle in public: The drum track on “Chanel” sounds like two distracted palms slapping on a desk, maybe one holding a pen—a simple noise, made from whatever’s available. The piano chords surrounding it are so faint they are barely audible. He approaches the song’s melody in a similarly offhand fashion, treating the four notes of the chorus like a drunk driver trying to veer around hazard cones. Imagine someone humming a once-loved, now-forgotten song to themselves, or the kind of off-key whistling you might do to puncture a tense moment; that’s the emotional register that most of his music happens in now.