Frank Ocean can seem invisible, but his influence is undeniable
It took four years for Frank Ocean’s Blonde to arrive after releasing his debut album. In those four years, only silence surrounded the elusive singer. There were no promotions, no interviews and no teaser tracks. Suddenly, an album called Endless arrived in video form. It had been only slightly promoted on his website and on an Apple Music stream. Then, the next day, Ocean’s proper follow-up to Channel Orange arrived. The promotion of both albums had a common element: minimalism.
The first of the two new albums, Endless, was released in a mysterious fashion. A video of Frank Ocean woodworking was streamed on the aforementioned platforms. Throughout the video, the new album played. A darker, wavier experience than Blonde, this album bathed in sparse instrumentals, strangely recorded verses and airtight sequencing. It was a beautifully empty project that executed so much with so little.
Then came Blonde, the more familiar of the two albums. Blonde is a less experimental affair and more straightforward. However, that doesn’t mean Ocean strayed from his path. The songs were crafted with the same minimalism that carried Endless. Quiet chords and slow drums are the centrepieces of this album. Ocean deals with regret, heartbreak, loneliness and heavy anxiety across all 17 songs, and proficiently weaves them into an obscure sense of relatability. Despite the songs being so emotionally impactful, the listener is never quite given the full story surrounding each one. Furthermore, Ocean isn’t active on social media and is rarely heard from outside of his music, so there aren’t any stories that can be associated with the tracks on the album. Ocean’s music resonates purely based on the listening experience.
The stripped-back approach Ocean experimented with has had such an impact that many new artists have delved into the sound and adapted it to their music. He helped create a new minimalistic subgenre of R&B that focuses more on content and less on the instrumentals. Khalid, the 20-year-old R&B singer responsible for recent hit “Love Lies,” borrowed from Ocean’s sound and turned it into a more upbeat, chart-topping hit in “Location.” The song was a major success, peaking at #16 on the Hot 100, but the production is quite simplistic. Backed by a few chords and soft drums, Khalid’s voice is the focal point of the track. While it is certainly early to be making comparisons, Nineteen85, half of R&B duo dvsn, tweeted that Khalid’s new EP, Suncity, “puts him in the Frank Ocean conversation.” Khalid’s work is nowhere near Ocean’s, but both artists share a form of simplicity in their recent works and aren’t afraid to keep quiet and let the music do the talking.
Ocean’s influence doesn’t stop there; artists like Daniel Caesar, Choker and Col3trane have all released projects that echo his approach. Caesar’s debut album, Freudian, features wavy, lush instrumentals, not unlike Blonde. The album was a success too, as it was well-received critically and peaked at #18 on the Billboard Top 200 Albums list. This, along with Khalid’s successful single, shows that not only is Ocean’s sound a huge influence on up-and-coming artists, but that it’s immensely marketable as well. Caesar and Khalid have seen a huge spike in popularity after dropping their debut albums in 2017.
Choker has released two projects, Peak and Honeybloom, which are excellent but wear Ocean’s influence on their sleeve, while Col3trane’s song “Malibu Sleep” has a flow that sounds similar to Ocean’s verses on “Chanel.” The song also features very little vocal production as it is sung somewhat quietly over the same chords and drums for the entirety of the track. Choker and Col3trane are newer to the music scene than Khalid and Caesar, but their sound is a product of Ocean.
There is a beautiful irony about the level of influence Ocean has on modern R&B. He’s a man who lives in secrecy. There aren’t any stories about him, interviews are impossible to come by, and live performances are almost nonexistent. Yet, his presence looms large. Aside from “Slide” (which isn’t even his song), Ocean hasn’t seen any radio play, but the songs he has influenced have: both “Location” from Khalid and “Get You” from Daniel Caesar have seen a lot of airtime. Despite only having two albums available for streaming, Ocean’s influence has reached more young artists than many other pop icons. He has birthed a new sound that’s become more visible in popular songs. Even though he remains mysterious and evasive, his presence is always felt.