Decoding Frank Ocean: secret messages, boomboxes and Boys Don’t Cry

With the R&B stars new album finally about to land, we search for clues to its content in the mysterious live stream he posted this week. Plus: exploring the journey that made him the last word in artistic integrity

Its four years since Frank Oceans last album, Channel Orange, and 13 months since he promised the follow-up, Boys Dont Cry, would be released.

In an era when many major artists are prolific such as Drake or ubiquitous Rihanna, Beyonc the New Orleans-born artist has taken his time and kept a low profile. Beyond a handful of guest vocal appearances, an a capella track on Kanye Wests The Life of Pablo, a two-minute sketch of song called Memrise and an appearance in a Calvin Klein ad, very little has been seen or heard from Ocean.

The suspense was broken on 1 August, when mysterious footage reportedly filmed in 2015 appeared on the website For nearly 48 hours, a camera was fixed on a black-and-white CCTV-like setup that showed the inside of an empty warehouse and a line of machinery. We saw a large stack of speakers, possibly taken from an installation by the artist and friend of Ocean Tom Sachs, that is currently being shown at Brooklyn Museum in New York. At times, a figure later revealed to be Ocean would arrive and start to cut, drill and sand planks of wood. These images would loop, and occasionally new camera angles were introduced. But once the viewer realised there was no climax or plot twist to come unless you consider the moment when he briefly checked his phone a cinematic highlight there was little to be gained by watching. Yet the hysteria surrounding the release continues to grow, proving that you dont need a live playback-cum-fashion-show in a world-famous arena (as West did at Madison Square Garden) to stoke anticipation for a comeback a circular saw will do.



figcaption class=”caption” caption–img caption caption–img” itemprop=”description”> Ocean has kept a low profile in the past couple of years, but he appeared in a recent Calvin Klein campaign. Photograph: Tyrone Lebon

Since the video launched, fans have displayed a terrifying dedication to the business of decoding it. Images of the singer have been found in the websites code; employees of Apple, whose logo appeared in the video, have reportedly been bombarded by fervent fans demanding more information. Every minute detail down to the type of saw Ocean is holding and the type of construction for which it is commonly used has been assessed.

Away from the home improvement, the video was awash with the industrial noise of saws and ghostly clips of music. These samples are likely to be tasters of Boys Dont Cry. They saw Ocean swing between psychedelic guitars, swirls of ambience drift, moments of glitch and classical piano. One atmosphere pervaded: a sense of solitude, melancholy and mystery.

These short clips of music support theories about the range of collaborators thought to feature on Boys Dont Cry. The more electronic noises could have something to do with avant-garde techno producer Holly Herndon, whose handiwork may have been uncovered while she was on tour with Radiohead this spring. As she played, her laptop was projected on to a big screen, revealing a folder entitled BEATS 4 FOCEAN.

Meanwhile, in 2015, experimental French composer and pianist Chassol described in an interview with the BBC how he was invited to Abbey Road to help Ocean with speech harmonisation; his addition conjures up elegant soundscapes of jazz, classical and funk. (Chassol also noted that the artist had a lot of pictures of architecture, contemporary art in his studio, which may explain his new-found affinity with woodwork.)

Other artists thought to be included are James Blake, Depeche Mode and British oddball King Krule, plus rapper Rich the Kid and producers Danger Mouse, Hit-Boy, Rodney Jerkins, Happy Perez and Rick Rubin, the latter of whom was spotted in the studio by Chassol.

Other references to his new direction have come from the man himself. In 2013, Ocean said his sonic moodboard featured a lot of Beach Boys and Beatles, while his love of 80s British new wave and post-punk has been declared: in the woodwork film, he was wearing a Jesus and Mary Chain T-shirt, while the albums name shares its title with The Cures 1980 record. Unless, of course, it refers to the 1999 film dramatisation of the life and murder story of trans man Brandon Teena. Given the Tumblr posts he wrote in the wake of the Orlando massacre, not to mention his tribute to Prince in which he thanked him for breaking the conventions surrounding sexual identity his songwriting may be moving in a more politicised direction.

In March, one Twitter user described a chance meeting with a man in a bar who allegedly broke his confidentiality agreement to divulge information about Oceans forthcoming project. In his new video, he said, Frank Ocean will build a staircase of the spiral variety, which certainly fits with some of his recent narrative. Other sleuths suspect hes building a boombox, similar to that of Sachs, on which he will premiere the new album. Its likely, however, that this elaborate ruse is designed to reveal a more simple motivation. Ive worked out what Franks doing! wrote one Reddit user: Hes building suspense!
Harriet Gibsone

How Frank Ocean became the last word in artistic integrity and freedom of expression

In February 2011, Ocean, then a background member of snotty Los Angeles rap collective Odd Future, posted a download link to his album Nostalgia, Ultra. Tyler, the Creator, who was then the most high-profile Odd Future member, reposted the link, explaining it was smooth ass music … in a swagged out way. In a genre that was dominated by the glossy R&B of Trey Songz and Chris Brown, Ocean (born Christopher Breaux in New Orleans in 1987) felt unique. Alongside songs about seducing girls and getting messy at Coachella, Ocean wrote about gay marriage, Islam, suicide and his absent father. He interpolated songs from Coldplay, the Eagles and MGMT.

Music fans lapped it up. But Ocean, possibly used to being a background player (after moving from New Orleans to LA, he made a living writing songs for Justin Bieber and Brandy), remained unknown. He was cultivating the elusive quality that would become his trademark and help him stand out in the age of oversaturation.


div class=”u-responsive-ratio”> Odd

Ocean (far left) with rap collective Odd Future. Photograph: Jim Smeal/BEI/Shutterstock

Two tracks on Jay Z and Kanye Wests joint album, Watch the Throne, followed. No Church in the Wild and Made It in America were statement songs about power and blackness, while his song for Beyoncs album 4 I Miss You was a sweet, intense, childlike evocation of new love. It was the twin of his next solo release, the DAngelo-esque Thinkin Bout You, which he posted on his Tumblr in July 2011. Eagle-eared listeners noted the use of boy on the track. Almost a year later, Ocean unveiled Pyramids, a song that was ambitious in its musical scope, multiple narrative perspectives, length (10 minutes) and meaning (a metaphor involving Cleopatra that touched on the black experience from Africa to the strip club).

A month later, his album Channel Orange (original title Hilfiger Nigga) was released. It was a different beast to Nostalgia, Ultra. The sound was looser and more organic. Psychedelic, prog and mystical elements intermingled with traditional rock ones (Elton Johns Benny and the Jets was sampled; John Mayer featured). The guests were exciting (Andr 3000, Earl Sweatshirt); the humane, Raymond Carver-ish quality of Pyramids was not a one-off. Bored trustafarians, junkies and religious outcasts were all part of its makeup.

A letter Ocean published on his blog a week later testified to the fact there was a subtext many listeners had missed on first listen. <a href=”″ data-link-name=”in” body link” class=”u-underline”>4 summers ago I met somebody. I was 19. He was too, Ocean wrote. It was my first love. It changed my life … I feel like a free man. The statement, which was originally intended to be printed as sleevenotes to the album, added a new dimension to songs such as Forrest Gump and Pink Matter.

Jay Zs site Life+Times published an article entitled Thank You, Frank Ocean, while Beyonc posted a black-and-white photo of Ocean on her Instagram, overlaid with messages including be honest, be brave and be yourself.

<img class=”gu-image” itemprop=”contentUrl” alt=”Frank” ocean” src=”″/>


figcaption class=”caption” caption–img caption caption–img” itemprop=”description”> Perfoming in Norrkping, Sweden, in 2013. Photograph: Claudio Bresciani/Scanpix Sweden After Channel Orange was released, Ocean became the last word in new R&B, artistic integrity and freedom of expression. Beyonce later told Complex magazine: I noticed his tone, his arrangements and his storytelling. The album went to No 2 in the UK and US and,while it wasnt a blockbuster hit, Ocean carved out a place for introspective and ambitious R&B that wasnt a slave to the Top 40. You could argue that the albums that are likely to top the 2016 best of lists (Rihannas Anti, Beyoncs Lemonade, Drakes Views and Wests Life of Pablo) owe a conceptual debt to Ocean.

Elsewhere, Oceans deeply felt posts on his Tumblr have shown his willingness to engage and represent. After the Orlando massacre, he wrote: Many dont see anything wrong with passing down the same old values that send thousands of kids into suicidal depression each year. So we say pride and we express love for who and what we are. Because who else will in earnest? His post on the passing of Prince was equally powerful. [Prince] was a straight black man who played his first televised set in bikini bottoms and knee-high heeled boots, he wrote. He made me feel more comfortable with how I identify sexually simply by his irreverence for obviously anarchic ideas like gender conformity. Even if Boys Dont Cry isnt a post-Black Lives Matter socio-political masterwork akin to Kendrick Lamars To Pimp a Butterfly, it will be a key work for Ocean, the man whose hand is gently turning pop towards a more aware, woke place.
Priya Elan

Read more:

Comments are closed.

Copyright © EP4 Blog