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Hey, Mr. DJ, Put Your Record On

While Drake uses Beats 1 for cultural dominance, other, more reclusive artists have taken to radio to more regularly commune with fans

(Getty Images/AP Images/20th Century Fox/Chillin Island/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/AP Images/20th Century Fox/Chillin Island/Ringer illustration)

For Drake, the Beats 1 Artist-Run Radio Impresario, a semiregular show is yet another weapon in the arsenal of tools that keep him constantly present. OVO Sound Radio, now on its 42nd show, is almost a full suite of PR services. Drake premieres full albums on it; he tests out (very fire) unreleased songs that (sadly) may never see the full light of day.

Elsewhere the chasm between artist and fan is bridged over with ramblings and stories and skits and larks. Drake establishes a fan-artist connection through exhaustive interviews with Zane Lowe, who in return has had nothing but effusive praise for the Toronto rapper (Mogul? Magnate? Destroyer of Worlds?). OVO Sound Radio is event listening in every sense of the term.

“Hats off to Drake, man. Honestly. He is a genius,” Lowe told The Ringer in April. “Him and Oliver [El-Khatib] worked it out, and they were like, ‘We know how to use this.’ He did it so dramatically, and so instinctively, and in such an exciting way. It’s been such a joy to watch Beats 1 create such an exciting link between Drake and his audience.”

But in the hands of artists who have made themselves more scarce, a fairly consistent show — or even a monthly show like Earl Sweatshirt’s Stay Inside on Red Bull Radio, which he cohosts with producer Knxwledge — carries a different value. Sweatshirt hasn’t released a full-length since 2015’s I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside (to note, two years between albums is normal, it just feels like an eternity). On the appropriately weird show, Sweatshirt plays “strange rap music from the internet babyyyyy.” There’s flatly atypical stuff like a Mir Fontane song that turns a drive-by into a nursery rhyme, and more songs that are just obscure, like sooty Roc Marciano and Quelle Chris deep cuts. New to the radio medium, Earl is either amiably figuring it out or comfortable in its lax standards of showmanship, but the important part is that he’s attendant and engrossed. In an April episode called “Joint Custody,” Earl shared that “I’m late, I’m not full, I love it” with a playful verve that — reading slightly into things — seems to suggest the timetable on his third studio album is months, not years.

Sweatshirt also premiered the King Krule–produced “Death Whistles” on a September edition of Stay Inside. The back half of that aforementioned ninth episode features a throng of exclusive Knxwledge remixes, including an obscure one of Amy Winehouse’s “Best Friend” that I’d previously never laid ears on and now can’t do without. While access is the draw for artist-run radio, new music is often what we’re really after when we listen to a show, whether “new” means “never before heard,” or “something you personally have never encountered before.”

Frank Ocean’s Blonded Radio on Apple Music’s Beats 1 provides both and then some.

In the surprise first episode, the intensely private pop singer invited Jay Z on to talk about the coarseness of modern radio. “It’s pretty much an advertisement model,” Jay said. “Their playlist isn’t based on music. If you think a person like Bob Marley right now probably wouldn’t play on a pop station. Which is crazy.”

Ocean’s meticulously curated show is a master class in eclecticism. In the second episode, Steve Lacy, DJ Shadow, and Whitney Houston appeared in the same mix before Ocean premiered “Chanel.” “Chanel” is a song about all the things you might do with newly won independence, like easily plug up an existential void with material things — and sex — now that you’re both rich and famous. Dark Red,” “What Does Your Soul Look Like,” and “Exhale,” in equal measure, inform the tone of “Chanel,” which is melancholic, but still yearns for contentment.

The structure of a Blonded episode — for example, the fifth is an hour and a half of music bookended by “Lens” — serves not only to entertain but also to codify the new music you hear, in a meta-Genius sort of way. When “Lens” first plays at the top of the show, you notice the dewy strings and lilting piano, along with Frank’s Auto-Tune, the song’s patient build — that it doesn’t seem to be about much of anything. But “Lens” makes more sense after a run through Darondo’s sorrowful “Didn’t I,” the Floater’s tranquil “Float On,” and a writhing, 10-minute song about suicide called “Frankie Teardrop” (by an electropunk band named Suicide) that — according to some fanslong outstays its welcome. It’s about futility, and how wondering if you’re happy is a rather direct route to not being happy. The songs that precede “Lens” don’t totally explain it, but they serve to deepen its colors and enrich its contrast.

Part of Frank Ocean’s allure is distance, so an inherent part of Frank fandom is waiting like a fool for the Google alert. Prior to dropping Endless and Blonde on the same weekend last August, Frank had done the equivalent of texting the music industry he was on his way before he’d even showered. For four years. But the bimonthly Blonded show is as close to a consistent presence as he’s gotten since deleting his Twitter account, aside from the occasional missive posted to his Tumblr page.

Similar to Earl spinning a Cymande song about not getting too lost in your dreams, Frank poking fun at frequent producer Michael Uzowuru by mimicking an anti-in-ear-headphones PSA is a novel and less-packaged way to share pieces of himself with fans.

In 2012, OHWOW gallery and aNYthing founder Aaron Bondaroff founded the internet-only Know Wave Radio station, which is completely devoid of what you might call “frills.” (The station has also been evicted from three different locations in the last three years.) Duly, and in true pirate radio spirit, Chillin Island, one of Know Wave’s mainstays, feels like cracking the door into the hazy living room where cohosts Dapwell and Despot are listening to and talking about the music they like, occasionally with guests, who are usually friends. For Dapwell, the former hype man for the rap group Das Racist, becoming a multimedia personality was the point. But for the evasive Despot — like, “11 years between singles, first music video at 33 years of age” evasive — Chillin Island is a chance for long-suffering fans to hang out with him for two hours every Tuesday.

Why are fans so eager to know where Despot’s been and when he’ll be “back”? That’s easy: because saying the now-dissolved Das Racist, with whom he regularly collaborated, had a “devoted following” would be an understatement. Also, he can rap. Like, rap rap. And he commands attention over production in a way that feels both nostalgic and current. There’s a song on Blood Orange’s 2013 album, Cupid Deluxe, called “Clipped On.” It starts slick and airy atop some brazen James Brown drums from 40 years ago, a dance record about being hopelessly, pitifully in love. But about a minute into it, a whirring, unlisted voice approaches the hedge of synths sideways, hacking away at it like a string trimmer:

That whirring, unlisted voice belongs to the Brooklyn rapper — equal parts lazy and a perfectionist — whose scant catalog is mostly just features. More than a decade after inking his original deal with El-P’s revered but now effectively defunct Definitive Jux label in 2004, Despot has yet to release his debut album, We’re All Excited. Having been on hiatus (can it be an interruption if there was never any continuity?) since then, the album has become like an indie rap Detox or Act II: Patents of Nobility situation. “Where’s the album” is now a stock response for any tweet Despot might send, no matter how passing the thought.

Though harangued about it literally all of the time, he seems playfully-to-earnestly disinterested in offering a concrete answer.

For now, the radio show is all we’re getting from Despot. The collapsed distance between artist and fan, then, can be “cool,” but it can also be maddening, because the artist is still out of reach. Even so, artist-run radio shows do provide something of a window into the mind, more so than interviews that can be platitudinous or promotional. There are few better ways to gauge where someone’s head is at than to know what they’ve been watching or listening to and hear what they think of it. Curated playlists are good, but on their own, they leave the question of who’s doing the curation open-ended. (President Obama’s Spotify playlists were obviously news, but they were even-handed to the point of OK, which White House intern put Courtney Barnett on here? Not for nothing, “Elevator Operator” is the first song on Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit.) Listening to these frequently unreachable figures fumble through transitions and talk over the decks allows a listener to see an artist explore their interests in real time.

That’s but one of artist-run radio’s uses. It’s savvy, to be sure, turning a radio show into a fully realized distribution plan like Drake. With three new singles in five Blonded episodes so far, Frank seems to be following suit somewhat. But Drake, of course, never really leaves us — with Frank, Earl, and Despot, the feeling of closeness is the bigger draw. We don’t know when they’ll be “back,” but it’s nice to hear about what they’ve been up to — and what they’ve been listening to — since they’ve been away.