I don’t know how to explain his return other than to start where I found him: I discovered Frank Ocean while watching the VMAs when I was 13. He crooned “Thinkin Bout You” seated on a rock on a stage that was dark save for the light of a faux campfire — a tame departure for the VMAs. I had no idea who he was, but his music was unlike anything I’d heard before, his airy neo soul unfamiliar to my tween pop taste. I read his infamous open letter on tumblr, though I didn’t understand his love language yet. I’d desperately like to say this was the moment I became a fan, but I didn’t know who I was at thirteen years old.
I needed Frank Ocean when I was 17 and still had no idea who I was. Blonde approached me my senior year of high school as my interiority strained between what I wanted of myself and what other people wanted of me. I waded in a normalcy that perceptions of my Arabness permitted. My shyness was a membrane between who I knew myself to be and a community where everyone looked like me. Normalcy, as I knew it, was the strangeness I felt around other people. It was the way time passed like water through fingers around the boys and girls who would never feel, never know what I felt towards them. The words, “Maybe I’m a fool / maybe I should move / and settle, two kids with a swimming pool / I’m not brave,” radiated through my headphones in the hallways. Blonde compacted the inumerable situations and feelings that deviate from normalcy into an album that eschews such a concept, its ambiguity and duality part and parcel to the very sound it embodies.
Blonde, stylized “blond” on the cover, blurs differentiations of gender and sexuality into an ether of feeling, an internalized understanding of self through external love and reflection. It defines an era, its contents carefully curated around an amalgamation of emotions felt in that four year gap between Blonde and Channel Orange. For a public that wanted more following his popularity in 2012, Frank only found it appropriate to experience different things and create different music. Such a departure from the spotlight would leave most artists forgotten and anticipation for new work dead. The opposite played and still plays true for Frank. His enigma breeds anticipation. Every track he drops is a landmark moment of force that needs reckoning. The year following Blonde’s release unfolded over Blonded Radio, and Frank singles dropped sporadically, unannounced but widely circulated. The singles abandoned the sound of Blonde but tugged at the same ideas, most notably “Chanel” in which Ocean croons “My guy pretty like a girl / And he got fight stories to tell / I see both sides like Chanel.”
Frank released “DHL” two years following the release of “Provider” on Blonded Radio and over three years since the debut of Blonde, almost the same span of time it took for him to follow up Channel Orange.
And “DHL”’s time and space only leaves Frank fans eager for more. From the get-go, the song is a significant departure from previous work. Whereas “Ivy” radiates a contemplative aura, “DHL” is about the present. It balances itself on warped, misshapen synths that chug and mesh into one another under woozy mumble raps. Former tracks and singles carried themselves on sparse, breezy instrumentals with every note clear and apparent, every lyric bare and vulnerable. “DHL” is not one of these songs. Beyond its sonic aesthetics, it presents Frank in a braggadocious mood. He doesn’t croon; he raps, and he raps about “diamonds,” “Starbucks” and being “rich as fuck” as he’s “sellin’ records out the truck.” He no longer feels like his lover “see(s) me like a UFO,” and he wants the world to know that he’s “Got my partner in the front, been my BF for a month/ But we been fuckin’ from the jump.”
The flows themselves are a bit woozy, almost fumbling over each other as narratives of sex and money weave a story together. It never feels contrived though, and never messy or unfocused. It plays out almost like a set of mantras “I got a pack, came from the DHL / Just caught up with a pack” loops over and over again at the end. Rather than pinpointing these moments individually, they gather together, layered to create a complex sound and energy.
Every piece comes together to usher in a new Frank era that marks the end of Blonde. Debuting with the return of Blonded Radio after his “PrEP+” club night and two previews for new vinyl tracks, the single pushes a new age of Frank’s music. Whereas Blonde is strong in its vulnerability, “DHL” exists in a period in which Frank expresses a need for artists to decide on their own whether to be strong and vulnerable. The sparseness and painstaking detail of Blonde is dissolved into beats that better suit Frank’s current appreciation for the club scene. For an artist defined by the impact and meaning of his music, this is monumental, signifying not only a new sound but a new reach. As someone who has grown both from and through Blonde throughout college, I’m eager to see how the next project will define a new generation for longtime fans and brand new ones.