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Frank Ocean’s Uneditable Genius

Notes on ‘Boys Don't Cry,’ his encyclopedic zine about art and the human experience

If we were going to get picky, to look the gift horse that was this weekend’s magnificent Frank Ocean triumvirate — his visual album, Endless; his “actual” album, Blonde; his accompanying zine, Boys Don’t Cry — right in the mouth, we might say this: Dude could occasionally use an editor. Someone to put his arm around Frank, real casual-like, and say, lightly, “Hey, Frank. Maybe you don’t need to release three weighty-ass works of art in the span of three days. What if you built in some time for people to digest each course? What if you cut 10 percent of the static from that interview at the end of ‘Futura Free’? What if you — I don’t know, I’m just spitballing here — picked 15 photos of cars for the zine instead of hundreds and hundreds?”

But Frank Ocean is, and always has been, the only editor Frank Ocean heeds. This is, of course, inextricable from his genius; nobody puts Frank Ocean in a corner, so we all get the immense pleasure of watching him dirty dance by himself. Nowhere is this resistance to trimming more apparent — or more deranged and beautifully realized — than in Boys Don’t Cry, a nearly 400-page tome stuffed full of erotic car photography, rambling interviews with people in Ocean’s orbit, dystopian fiction, screenshots of Ocean’s browsing history, and a 12-page spread devoted to Kanye West’s trip to McDonald’s. At the end of the zine, in a (long, but you already knew that) list of credits, Frank Ocean is identified as its editor-in-chief and creative director (he shares the latter title with frequent collaborator Thomas Mastorakos). There are “sub editors” and an “editor’s assistant” and an “intern,” but these are Ocean’s waters, and as such, the traditional rules don’t apply. This is some maritime-law shit.

Of course Ocean, being light-years ahead of us all, understands the concept of editing. He just chooses to transcend it, to tack the “e” onto the end of Blonde but also to remove it, because why the fuck not. Ocean wants to be in three places at once, so he is. Rather than exclude one thought in favor of another, one stair-building Frank in favor of another, he smashes them all together and lets them coexist, if not peacefully then at least gorgeously. Take his de facto Editor’s Letter. Ocean begins by describing the sensation of being strapped down in a car. “The claustrophobia hits as the seatbelt tightens, preventing me from even leaning forward in my seat,” he writes. “The pressing of internal organs. I lean back and forward to release it. Then backwards and forwards again. There it is — I got free.” Ocean wonders if he’ll die in a car, then immediately checks himself: “Knock on wood-grain. Shouldn’t speak like that.” He knows he should delete that bad-juju sentence, but instead, he printed it 2,000 times. Why pick a lane when you can have twooo versions?

And yet: Ocean’s unfailing self-awareness is its own form of editing. He criticizes himself — makes fun of himself, too — before we can. Right there on page six is a nod to his own tendency to disappear into the ether. It’s an interview between someone credited as “???” and his Auntie Fee, with just one question: “When was the last time you saw Frank?” “Let me tell you the last time I saw him,” answers Auntie Fee. “He always had a habit of running out of gas and he runs out of gas at 2:30 in the morning on the Santa Monica freeway, ok? He calls about 10 people to come get him and nobody would come get him. He calls me at 2:30 in the morning. I say, ‘Okay, not a problem.’ I get up out of my bed, get my AAA, get him off the freeway, get him to the nearest gas station, put gas in his car and give him $20. I never seen him since. Except one time.” Fee sums up that singular encounter after the freeway incident as follows: “‘Do you have a computer?’ Motherfucker, do I have a computer? What about ‘Hello Auntie’? What the fuck is wrong with you!”

What the fuck is wrong with Frank Ocean is that he knows exactly what’s wrong, then does it anyway, and it’s so consistently fucking great that we forget why we were mad at him in the first place. Page 10 kicks off a cheeky nine-page spread by artist Tom Sachs (he of the Endless boombox) titled “Color: Comprehensive Color Code Guide Book.” “In the studio, we adhere to a strict color code,” Sachs writes, in giant typewriter text that’s been cut and pasted onto the page. “The color code is non-negotiable. We do not stray from the color code.” Dryly witty asides accompany close-ups of tubs of paint: “Orange is a native color in the studio. You will not find orange paint here,” types Sachs. “Except for in emergency situations.” Underneath a militaristic, black-and-white photo of the word PURPLE: “The color purple is a forbidden color. The color purple is forbidden in the studio. The color purple is punishable by death. There is never any excuse for the color purple.” Sachs, too, appears to find the idea of editing art patently absurd.

One of the strangest parts of Boys Don’t Cry (but not at all strange, considering) is that Ocean himself appears rarely, and only in positions of complete control. He is the interviewer, never the interviewee. He is the photographer, rarely the subject (and when he is the subject, he’s often turned away or obscured). On occasion, he lets others take the wheel from him entirely, but only to closely inspect something dear to him. After Auntie Fee, there’s a profile of sorts on Rosie Watson, “the devoted mother of Frank Ocean’s good friend Jonathan,” a wisdom-dispelling woman who considers Frank her nephew. Watson appears in the zine because, as the article explains, “She makes another guest appearance on the new album, with a voicemail that warns of flesh-eating bacteria that’s running rampant on college campuses.” Watson does not, in fact, appear on the album. But why cut this delightful interview? Why cut the equally delightful, if slightly confusing, aside?

A later interview between Ocean and Lil B is another highlight, and the apotheosis of the Boys Don’t Cry aesthetic, which is to say it is surreal, fascinating, and at times incomprehensible. It is seven pages long. It is about ... life? Corporate greed? IPOs? Masculinity? Whether or not Lil B has ever struck a woman? The benefits of peppermint tea over chamomile? If it’s hard to parse, it’s because Ocean and Lil B appear to be on completely separate wavelengths the entire time. Though they make reference to being in the same room, likely staring one another directly in the face, they rarely appear to be communicating. Instead, each just leapfrogs over the other, then glances back to see if the other is following or has unceremoniously drowned. By the end, Lil B is doing most of the talking, with Ocean giving him the space to ramble unrestrained, only occasionally popping in with a clarifying “what the fuck.” A sample interaction:

BasedGod: ... I used to think and be so into my head and worry about what people thought about me and that used to hinder me. I used to not do as much as I could. Like my nigga why am I still eating fast food? I'm eating fruit all the time now, you know it’s beautiful, we got the fruit downstairs.

Frank: Yea you told me you went to Whole Foods before you came here. Said you were a lil late because you had to stop at the market and get those fruits and vegetables. (Laughter)

BasedGod: I got another one, here it goes, I ordered a sandwich. I was a little hungry and I automatically flipped on the dude like before I even opened it. Like ‘Why the fuck is this sandwich not cut?’ I just opened it a lil bit and it was cut. You just gotta wait sometimes. I tripped like, ‘What the fuck. Niggas can’t get shit right. This dude.’ I just opened it a little bit just waited, wait. Not expecting the worst. And I’m just like ‘Boom!’...I’m just a fucking ass.

Frank: Dog, what? (Laughter)

Other portions of Ocean’s oeuvre — like that staticky back-and-forth at the end of “Futura Free” — are, graciously, illuminated in these pages. Early on, Ocean (or someone else whom Ocean has deemed worthy) is interviewing Ocean’s brother, Ryan, and his friends Sage Elsesser, Nakel Smith, Evan Clark, and Brahim Iriri. The interviewer asks them all the same 13 questions, including “What’s the most amazing thing you’ve ever witnessed?” and “How far is a light-year?” The answers are, on the whole, mundane but fun to skim. Ryan once saw a “tight building”; Nakel is amazed by “friendship, and how it controls the world.” Sage thinks a light-year is “very far, yea, it’s very fucking far.” This is what we’re hearing at the end of Blonde, albeit coated with white noise. Maybe Ocean agreed regarding the mundanity, but didn’t see it as reason to excise the exercise entirely.

As much as Ocean enjoys artistic excess, though, he fears other sorts of excess: Excess of money (he asks three separate people if “money is sexy”), excess of technology, excess of animal pleasures. In Ocean’s world, the common setting for these fears is The Future, a place as unknowable and uncompromisable as Ocean himself. He is fixated on the future in Boys Don’t Cry, bringing it up in every single one of his interviews, asking those close to him what they “think the year 3000 will look like” and whether “people are more nostalgic these days” and “what do you think, or suppose, was before everything?” Ocean reveres nostalgia (Ultra), treasures things he can control and capture in the rearview mirror of his mind: old cars; old movies and old songs; wistful conversations with figures from and about his childhood (“surprisingly my favorite part of life so far,” he writes in his letter); Tyler, the Creator sleeping on his sofa; McDonald’s french fries; AOL Kids and fuzzy porn; Forrest Gump; climbing trees and Michael Jackson. But it’s all downhill from here.

“Godspeed,” one of only a handful of longer pieces of Ocean’s writing in Boys Don’t Cry (another is a lovely poem called “Boyfriend”), is a screenplay of sorts that takes place in some near future. Ocean describes it as “simultaneously old and new, weathered by time and progress ... a modern city embracing technology but somewhat overtaken by nature, still trying to find a balance.” Its main character, Steely, is an Ocean avatar, a luxury-car-thief-cum-student-cum-philosopher whom the author describes as “charismatic and well liked but emotionally guarded.” “Godspeed” is, literally, very hard to read; its font colors bleed so dispassionately into the gray backdrop of the page that almost all of Ocean’s dialogue is completely illegible. What I could decipher were his stage directions — long, detailed descriptions of the characters interacting with technological advances like a “slate” that “responds to [Steely’s] touch, turning transparent while a swarm of light particles activate a 3-D projection an inch of its surface, making a mold of his hand.”

Steely interacts with his girlfriend, Shoobie, almost exclusively via text; his classmates and teachers are all holographic projections, and his realest connection is with Florence, a security guard who turns the other way while he steals cars. Ultimately, “Godspeed” is a dystopian, melancholic daymare about disconnection and the price of progress — being sluggish, lazy, stupid, and unconcerned. Another short story in Boys Don’t Cry, Andrew Durbin’s “You’ve Been Flirting Again,” engages with these same themes; it’s about a dude skimming dating apps via his self-driving car, the world quite literally at his fingertips, though he’s “actually never doing anything.” It’s fitting that one of Ocean’s phobias seems to be removing his hands from the wheel.

And now we must talk about the cars. Because there are so many cars. By my count, there are over 200 of them in this book, and that’s just in photo form, not textual reference. There is a multiple-page photo shoot of a white Suzuki hatchback that naked Asian men lie atop and make out in and smoke in and chill, ass out, inside its trunk. There is another, lengthier interview with a guy named Ed “The Sloth” Clark about his compulsive car-collecting habits. I lost track of the number of photo shoots that took place on or around race tracks. An entire section is titled “Pensive Racecar Drivers.” (It’s comprised of photos of pensive race-car drivers.) There are three pages showcasing car logos shaved into men’s fades. Scattered throughout are photos of Ocean staring lovingly at cars or car-related paraphernalia. It is so, so much. It is classic Frank Ocean, conflating eternal love with White Ferraris and freedom with driving unbuckled down an open road toward an endless horizon, a road to nowhere.

For all of its excess and self-indulgence and men’s butts, though, Boys Don’t Cry never feels grating or false or tiresome. That’s because, while it barrels toward that endless horizon, it also engages directly and consistently with what it purports to avoid: the end. One of Ocean’s other obsessions, predictably, is death. That unavoidable Final Editor, if you will. Death and the fear thereof (please give him immortality) color each rare glimpse we get of Ocean in Boys Don’t Cry. In a sprawling interview with composers Christophe Chassol and Om’Mas Keith, Ocean asks, “At what point in your life did it occur to you? That all things come to an end?” He speculates on his own demise in the zine’s very first paragraph. He devotes two pages to second-by-second screenshots of his own self-immolation. His favorite movies are fucking Apocalypse Now and Orpheus and Persona and 2001 and Citizen Kane and Blade Runner. “If I die while I’m asleep,” he writes in “Boyfriend,” “I pray to God my boyfriend keeps my secret / peace.”

That fear of total erasure is what drives him. Ocean is just as afraid of misusing his life, just as fixated on the legacy he’ll leave behind, on what will come after him. One of the last short pieces of fiction in the zine, Ben Brooks’s “Kimchi, or A Partial List of Misappropriated Hood Ornaments,” features another Ocean stand-in, an 11-year-old artistic prodigy who has an existential crisis after a breakup and refuses to keep painting, much to the chagrin of his hangers-on. It’s a hilarious, parodic look at the plight of the precocious genius (“the majority of child prodigies grow into competent or unexceptional adults”), and tellingly, it ends with said prodigy deciding he will stop making art permanently and learn to do something useful, like make sushi or design cars. “Today I made nothing,” reads the last line. “And I did not die.” It’s a fable that exorcises what appear to be two additional Frank Ocean Worst Nightmares: Making art on someone else’s terms and/or not making art at all (would he survive it?).

The salve for all of these fears seems to be engaging with them endlessly, on a looping track, for as long as Ocean wants to, which might be up until his death or until the day he decides to start making sushi. At the risk of both of us sounding really pretentious, I think that’s ultimately what Ocean is trying to do with Boys Don’t Cry and Blonde and Endless: process and make sense of, you know, the entire human experience. Why would we ask him to edit that?

At the end of his interview with Chassol and Keith, after the conversation has devolved into Keith declaring that he’d like to be a Parisian girl and “touch my own sex,” Keith revs down the engine and asks the other two if there’s any ground left to cover. “Ok, gentlemen, where we at? Any more topics?” asks Keith. “You want to talk about Transformers the movie? Anything left?” Ocean, of course, gets the final word. “I feel like we talked about everything,” he says. “I think we’re good.”