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Who’s to Blame, Frank Ocean or His Fans?

Examining the “will he or won’t he” saga of ‘Boys Don’t Cry’

Getty Images
Getty Images

In the past week, the interminable four-year wait for the follow-up to Channel Orange has taken a masochistic turn. After failing to drop the album as promised before the end of July, Frank Ocean uploaded a cryptic livestream to his site early Monday morning, bringing fans’ anticipation to a fever pitch; soon after, The New York Times reported that the album would be dropping today.

And … nothing. Again. As we continue to sit with bated breath, Ringer staff writers Victor Luckerson and Justin Charity discuss whether it’s Frank or his fans who are at fault for this futile waiting game.

Victor Luckerson: Boys do cry — and so do girls, when Frank Ocean yet again refuses to release the Channel Orange follow-up we’ve all been clamoring for since “Gangnam Style” was a thing. Here is a man with a preternatural songwriting talent that has, unfortunately, brought the ambiguity that resonates in his lyrics into his album-promotion scheme. I was fine with the music snippets and vague references to being influenced by the Beatles that marked the first couple of post-Channel years. But Frank crossed the first line when he skipped the original July 2015 release date for Boys Don’t Cry with no explanation. He crossed another by doing the same thing in July 2016. And now he’s long-jumped across all demarcation points by hosting a carpentry livestream on Apple Music, leading us to believe his album would drop Friday, and failing to deliver. Dude needs to answer for himself.

Justin Charity: Frank Ocean is behaving like a dickhead. So are his fans. His fans are worse, in fact, because they’ve responded to Frank’s personal narcissism and creative insecurity — it happens — with psychotic mob chants to beg a 20-something hermit to record and release music that he seemingly doesn’t want to record or release. Frank Ocean is 28 years old. Blessed is he who has so much leverage and control in his situation that some jackass label executive didn’t already squeeze bricks and shameful compromises out of him two years ago. Begging Frank Ocean to put his worse foot forward is selfish, wrongheaded, and a waste of time for all parties involved.

To up the ante, Apple Music has paid some ungodly sum of money (I hope) for exclusive-release rights to Boys Don’t Cry, which is so wildly and unsustainably hyped that it has fans actually watching that weeklong livestream of an R&B singer cutting wood for a boombox. Y’all are gonna get your feelings hurt. I struggle to understand what you people want from this guy. Bad, unfinished music? You want The Life of Pablo? We just got the The Life of Pablo. I deleted it from my iTunes in May.

V.L.: What we want is a little more honesty about the music-making process. Look, I’m no Frank superfan, but I did use Facebook to document my slow descent into madness during the three torturous days between Kanye’s Madison Square Garden fashion show on Thursday, February 11, and TLOP’s eventual release on Valentine’s Day. So I get what they’re going through. Fan outrage online is largely performative. It’s now part of the event culture surrounding album releases (or in this case, nonreleases). Even if you’re not actually going mad, it’s another way to engage with the artist who has already staked this out as their moment to be talked about — hence, the ongoing livestream. Difference is, Ye came through with the goods (you deleted “Ultralight Beam”?), while Frank is habitually missing deadlines he set for himself. But maybe we need to trade timelines so I can see the truly venomous vitriol you’ve been witnessing.

J.C.: Hype predates the internet. All that’s changed is that social media has democratized the articulation of hype; and, arguably, social media has created certain engagement incentives for performative fandom even among folks who maybe don’t care all that much. They may be pretending to be excited, but they’re definitely not pretending to be entitled, clingy, and annoying. In this year of hopelessly protracted album rollouts, we have reached a breaking point. Rihanna habitually missed her rumored deadlines for Anti, thus infuriating fans, until she released the album in January 2016, a year “late.” Which is to say, a year later than avid fans might’ve hoped. But she came when she came. At which point, nothing mattered but the music. Really, nothing but the music has ever mattered. Generally, once the album’s out, the wait is moot; effectively, it never happened.

I do think that, past a certain threshold, Frank Ocean becomes Jay Electronica, another dickhead who squandered all his goodwill by frequently and dramatically promising to release music that he then frequently and dramatically failed to deliver. Obviously, the key difference between Jay and Frank is that Jay never even released his debut album; whereas, in Frank’s case, we’re just waiting on the follow-up. Still, the audience’s emotional arc is basically the same here, and it suggests that there’s an invisible, precarious threshold of fan base patience. Life comes at you fast: The elusive dilettante Jay Electronica had our sympathies for about five years until one day, rather suddenly, he didn’t.

V.L.: It’s true that fan sentiment can change fast, and idolization can morph into contempt. But if Frank Ocean never releases another album, I think he’s more of a Lauryn Hill than a Jay Elec. The fact that he knocked it out of the park with his rookie debut matters. People love Channel Orange, and they also love loving Channel Orange. Again, performative fandom — which can be a fun form of expression — allows people to shake their fists at Frank Ocean the aloof carpenter and adore Frank Ocean the aloof crooner singing to Forrest Gump. In some ways, that dichotomy can magnify an artist’s resonance.

Bottom line: If you have a deadline, meet it. If you can’t meet it, explain to your fans what’s going on. We’re living in an attention-driven economy online. Frank purposefully got us to pay up with that livestream, and now he’s not delivering the promised goods. If he doesn’t want to be hounded by fan pleas for music, he should go the André 3000 silent-type route instead of hyping his next LP via a cryptic multimedia campaign for more than a year. Even the Radiohead shenanigans lasted only a few weeks, and reliability-wise, this dude ain’t Radiohead. Part of being a superstar artist is managing fan expectations. Beyoncé does this flawlessly by dropping video-album extravaganzas like manna from the sky. Frank is veering more into Dr. Dre territory, and if Compton proves anything, it’s that you can arrive late to your own party.

J.C.: Dr. Dre? Compton? Your first thought is Compton? Seven years passed between The Chronic and 2001. It is what it is.