According to Frank Ocean, boys don’t cry. But after four years of false promises and deceptive due-dates, this weekend he had boys and girls the world over weeping tears of joy with the release of his second full-length studio album, Blonde. While the album is excellent and is already being lauded as one of the year’s best, many fans are frustrated that there’s one more hoop to jump through before their longing ears can make contact with Ocean’s sensuous falsetto.
Taking a cue from fellow avant-garde musicians Kanye West and Beyoncé, Ocean is offering his album through a single streaming source, bestowing the honor on iTunes and Apple Music. But Ocean has taken it a step further than ‘Ye and Bey, dropping Blonde independently and cutting ties with his former label Def Jam.
Though the move’s unprecedented, it was inevitable for both the industry and for Frank Ocean himself. Record companies have long kept musicians under their thumb, locking them into contracts laden with red tape and pocketing the lion’s share of the profits. Artists have been forced to comply with label demands, a necessary evil for getting their music into their fans’ hands.
The tide began to shift in 2003 with the emergence of iTunes, which allowed users to purchase their music online without making a trek to their local music store. To combat profit loss, most major labels struck deals with Apple to make their music available on iTunes, allowing them to continue exercising control over their artists. But Ocean has finally made the first truly mutinous step into the brave new world of possibilities that iTunes created for artists over a decade ago.
In releasing Blonde independently, Ocean has removed the middleman—the label. The album was recorded completely in-house, and he subsequently inked his own exclusive deal with Apple. Even if you weren’t planning on scoring your copy of Blonde in vinyl or compact disc form, you won’t find it on Spotify, Amazon Music or Tidal (if you’re one of their 3 million plus begrudging subscribers), either. Ocean is giving you one option only—new for the music industry, but certainly not for Ocean himself.
Two years ago, Ocean agreed to sing a jingle for a new Chipotle commercial and accepted over $200,000 for compensation. However, he was so displeased with the final cut that he demanded it be scrapped, and sent the cash back to Chipotle with the simple, direct phrase, “FUCK OFF”, written in the check’s memo line in crisp, uniform all-caps letters.
More recently—in fact, on Friday, the day before he released Blonde—Ocean released a visual album, Endless, to fulfill his final obligation with Def Jam. While impressive in its own right, twenty-four hours later he self-released Blonde, sending a message perhaps even more explicit than the one he elegantly inscribed on his refund to Chipotle.
Ocean’s stayed relatively busy over the past four years, curating his magazine, Boys Don’t Cry, along with a website of the same name, and a hugely popular Tumblr account. He frequently pens insightful pieces on topics ranging from homophobia (and his own sexuality) to race and religion.
Still, he didn’t release an album in the time it takes most reasonably performing college students to graduate. For an artist who refuses to be controlled, he has an uncanny ability to keep fans at his beck and call. Relative contemporaries like Beyoncé and Kanye, for all their anti-establishment sentiments, issue music far more frequently than Ocean, and through major distributors—Kanye’s GOOD Music label is distributed by Def Jam.
With Blonde, Ocean has refused to deign to that, and his recalcitrance is as appealing as it is maddening. His intelligence and eloquence touches millions—most of who are under 30 and get all their music online already, meaning Blonde’s independent release will hardly put a damper on its sales. The album’s poised to grab the number-one Billboard slot this week, proof that if you’re just plain good enough, compromise isn’t necessary.
Ocean’s certainly an artist who marches to the beat of his own drum, but when his music is this spectacular, almost everyone is willing to tag along behind him. If artists as influential as Ocean follow in his footsteps, we may see several major labels struggle to stay afloat—for their sake, let’s hope they can “swim good.”