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Frank Ocean’s Imaginary Album

On performative desire and fool’s errands

I have seen him in person only one time: in New York, 2012, bent over a piano in the center of a stage, a red-and-white cloth folded into a halo and tied around his head. It didn’t feel special to see Frank Ocean then, or at least not in the way it might feel special for some now. He sang to an audience that didn’t know all of the words to every song, impossible as that might now seem. What stands out was the closing moment: Ocean smiling, looking out over the audience after an encore of “I Miss You,” giving a very warm and genuine wave and “thank you.” And then saying “OK, I’m gone for real this time, y’all. So … uhhh … please be good.” He slipped into the red-tinted smoke that had been at his back all night, becoming a large shadow, and then a small shadow, and then nothing altogether.

The joke here would be that I never saw Frank Ocean at all that night. I merely imagined him, the way we all have — a mirage, stretched glorious over a full four seasons, and then gone. It’s a joke about performative longing. The punch line is the way we have convinced ourselves that Frank Ocean is a singular artist, who left a singular void — one that can only be filled by Frank Ocean, though not Frank Ocean as the artist he is or might be. It can only be filled by Frank Ocean as distance has allowed us to remember him: A Frank Ocean that doesn’t exist.

When I think about all of the things I enjoyed about 2012’s Channel Orange, I cannot detach myself from its underlying aesthetic — the way it relied on clear and detailed narratives to evoke emotion, as opposed to resting every emotion on home-run vocals. His very clear and obvious ear for songwriting, which existed before the album, seemed to turn a sharp corner all at once. The music was R&B in flimsy classification only; I was drawn to its casual and effortless stretching of genre. Very little of the talk about Channel Orange, then or especially now, is about how it holds up as a collection of actual songs. Some of the songs were great, and others were lacking, sacrificing quality for concept. I found it bloated in spots, but still worthy of praise. When I hear and read and talk about Channel Orange now, it barely sounds like an album, more like a machine of inevitable greatness. When an album was beloved upon its release, imagine, then, what becomes of it once time sinks its teeth into that album and pushes down on it. I know many people who talk about Channel Orange and few people who still listen to it. Instead of a discussion or appreciation of the music that exists, the talk is now of the empty space the music has left. Frank Ocean has become a blank room, which we can decorate any way we choose.

Four years is not a particularly long time between albums, but this is what happens when you make something that people love and then shrink into silence. The calendar, for those people, becomes a kind of slow tick. The level of emotional honesty that existed both in and around Channel Orange grants people an imagined access to a life, a story, and even a career that isn’t their own. This is one of the many ways that fandom becomes a performance. In the timeline of false reports, false starts, promises, and broken promises, Frank Ocean has remained steady and largely silent. Yet, without fail, the performance of longing for Frank Ocean has reached fever pitch. The jokes are all the same, stumbling over each other to get to the same end point. We are at a point where the prospective album itself is now secondary to wanting Frank Ocean himself to serve a specific purpose, to behave like the pop star he is, to be visible and accessible to his many fans.

Surely, an album will eventually exist. Though, more and more, I am asking myself if it should, or what would happen to us if it never did. I want, on one hand, for Frank Ocean to see how long he can stretch this out and play on our relentless desire to anticipate — how long he can sit the pie on the windowsill behind a fence that is too tall for any of us to climb. I am, in some ways, more fascinated by this than I think I would be by any music he could give us. How many months or years could this play out? If Frank Ocean gives himself to us in small enough bites, will his body survive long enough to keep us waiting forever?

I am strictly interested in thirst and the manners in which it manifests. I care very little about what carries Frank Ocean to the wood shop, or what he may or may not have been building. But I am interested in the point where thirst gives itself over to the wildest edges of our imagination and becomes unquenchable. This is the Frank Ocean tipping point, the one that we have been racing toward since we convinced ourselves that Channel Orange was more than just an album. There is no drink that will satisfy this moment’s eager and open mouth. It turns out when you take a living person and build them into a myth, they might not return for you on time, or they might not return for you at all. I wish for Frank Ocean to turn back. I have looked into the eyes of this moment, and there is nothing that will quell the desire it has ignited. We have, I think, pushed too far past a place of reason. Even an album significantly above Frank Ocean’s considerable station would not be enough. I say that now, in the time of release rollouts that live longer than an album’s music, or the consideration of that music. In this moment of high demand and disposable album cycles, I wish for Frank Ocean to make everyone remember what it is to truly long for a thing, even when knowing that the thing is imperfect.

Until then, I am only interested in the arrival of songs. I can be spared both the performance of desire and the performance of promises. I grew bored with waiting months ago, even more so now, in the midst of 2016’s absolute R&B and soul revival, brought on by brilliant albums from Laura Mvula, Nao, KING, Corinne Bailey Rae, and others. It is a rich time in the lane Frank Ocean once occupied, so rich that if you are paying attention, it might make missing him a bit easier.

What I remember more than anything about seeing Frank Ocean on a stage in real life is how sad watching him felt. Not sad in the romantic way, the kind you might feel during a melancholy ballad from a band you loved in high school. I mean a real sadness, the raw kind, not sweetened by any gentleness of a moment. The kind that you can feel rising off of a person’s body and see filling the air above your head. I do not know if Frank Ocean himself was sad that night — or if it was, like so much else, part of the performance, or part of the concept. I do know that I watched Frank Ocean and he looked like he wanted to be somewhere else. It didn’t feel petulant, like a child helping with inside chores on a sunny day. It felt like a very real desire to exist in a space other than a sold-out room in New York with everyone watching him. Between songs, he would often take extended pauses, even after the audience applause died down. While someone would yell “C’MON FRANK!” or “TELL IT!” into the near-silence, he would stare into the dark spaces along the venue walls. The look in his eye said he was imagining what it might be like to be in another place — perhaps what it might be like to be another person, a person people didn’t need.