Frank Ocean returns with album, film, magazine and pop-up stores

Frank Ocean accepting the International Male Solo Artist award during the BRIT Awards 2013 ceremony in London.
Frank Ocean accepting the International Male Solo Artist award during the BRIT Awards 2013 ceremony in London.PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK (AFP) - Frank Ocean basked in praise four years ago for his debut album, which tore through boundaries of musical and sexual identification, but afterward maintained an increasingly awkward public silence.

After several false starts, Ocean has suddenly returned not just with a new album but his own film and magazine - yet he remains nearly as enigmatic.

Ocean, whose soulful falsetto coupled with rapid vocal delivery straddles across hip-hop and R&B, re-emerged cryptically on Aug 1 with a grainy livestream video in which he appeared to be doing woodwork.

The singer in fact was building stairs and, completing them some 18 days later, a film soundtrack kicked in - a 45-minute piece entitled Endless weaved together largely from programming for electronic music.

But Endless was not the long-awaited album. That came Saturday night when Ocean released the 17-track Blonde. On Blonde, he again proves himself to be the rare hip-hop artist whose appeal lies in the understatement of his art.

Blonde, whose contributors include Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, is driven by a hazy sound layer over light R&B beats, with Ocean steering between torch songs for lost loves and reflections on the mixed blessings of fame.

Nikes, the album's first track, attacks the materialism he sees in his new life as a star, while on Godspeed, near the album's end, the 28-year-old Ocean mourns the passing of his youth to the accompaniment of a Gospel organ.

Ocean breaks up the album with spoken-word interludes of tongue-in-cheek guidance. One features his mother warning of the dangers of drugs, while later the electronic producer SebastiAn complains in his French accent about a now ex-girlfriend who insisted on taking their relationship to Facebook.

Ocean's subtle musical power drove the success of his Grammy-nominated 2012 debut studio album, Channel Orange. He also made headlines when he revealed that his first love was a man, a rare openness in the often macho world of hip-hop that brought statements of support from stars including Jay Z.

Ocean has declined to put labels on his sexual orientation. In a perhaps deliberate statement of fluidity, the new album is called Blonde yet the cover art uses the more masculine Blond - along with a picture of Ocean in dyed hair that verges on green.

Yet he is more forthright on sexuality on Blonde. On Good Guy, the Los Angeles-based artist speaks of his frustration when he visits New York and is set up on a blind date with a garrulous man at a gay bar.

"I know you don't need me right now / And to you it's just a late night out," Ocean sings.

Ocean also contributed a poem, Boyfriend, in a magazine entitled Boys Don't Cry that he launched to accompany the album.

In the poem, Ocean touches a recent milestone for the gay community - the right to marry across the United States - and how he has instead been consumed by the minutiae of a day-to-day relationship.

"I could say that I'm happy / They let me and my boyfriend become married / I could say that I'm happy / But cross my heart I didn't notice," he writes.

Boys Don't Cry, which Ocean had initially said would be the title of the album, also features a poem by rap superstar Kanye West on a more prosaic subject - McDonald's.

Ocean released the magazine as well as a physical edition of Blonde with slight differences in the tracklist at pop-up stores in four cities - Chicago, London, Los Angeles and New York.

Ocean otherwise put out Blonde exclusively through Apple - a publicity win for the tech behemoth which has been moving aggressively into streaming and earlier reached a deal with Drake, the rapper behind the top-selling album released so far in 2016.

Jay Z's Tidal service has put a priority on exclusives as it and Apple Music seek a slice of the fast-growing streaming market dominated by Spotify.

Tidal in recent months had reached at least temporary exclusive deals with top names in music including Beyonce, Rihanna and West.