With our clamour for low-quality snippets and false news reports, the desperate wait for Frank Ocean’s new album says a lot about how we consume music today
Late Monday evening, word began to spread that Frank Ocean had soundtracked an exclusive party in New York with his much anticipated new album – a rumour fuelled by poor-quality recordings and videos taken at the event that were pulled from the net almost as quickly as they went up. Though these snippets are too lo-fi to even recognise as music, fans are still clinging to them in the desperate hope that Ocean might, finally, be emerging with new material.
Channel ORANGE, Frank Ocean’s only studio album, was released way back in 2012, a long-lost era when many were still not attuned to exactly what a Kendrick Lamar even was. Since early 2013, the California crooner’s follow-up record (which might be called Boys Don’t Cry, if a Tumblr post last year is anything to by), has been reported to be in varying states of completion. Publications have acted as Ocean’s wingman, making claims about the artist that they know to be unlikely, blinded by a mixture of admiration and loyalty, and tempted by the inevitable page hits. “Frank Ocean is planning something big for July,” Billboard proclaimed last year, attempting to back this up with a reported sighting of Ocean working in Abbey Road (in the end, July passed without incident).
Ocean’s sightings are now reported like Tupac’s, but unlike Shakur, he doesn’t seem to have a good excuse for his recent inactivity. Despite all this, we reached to hear an unsanctioned leak from an event that may or may not have even happened, because we’re a confused mass that now actively encourages such fractured releases slipped into our outstretched consciousness as we gratefully plead for more.
Our desire for instant access to these raw samplings, coupled with the scrutiny that follows, has changed the music-making process. Modern consumption habits now facilitate different creative avenues that could be to blame for the paralysis and insecurity exuded by many mainstream artists. Where a mixtape used to exist as an acceptable way of filling the gap between big releases, providing a clear indicator of where the artist was at that moment in time, now we place incredible value on tiny segments of non-information provided by whichever member of the artist’s label currently has the Twitter password in order to feed the neverending news cycle. Gone is a desire to see musicians continually add to their body of work in a meaningful way, good or bad. In its place is a slow trickle of new songs that focus-group every new beat. “Promise me you’re happy,” your favourite act asks as they gently clasp your hand.
“An unauthorised leak isn’t treated as a violation; instead, we’re invited to comment on it as soon as possible and even remix it to fit our preferences”
A mechanism also now exists that turns every leaked song into something that should be treasured. An unauthorised leak isn’t treated as a violation; instead, we’re invited to comment on it as soon as possible and even remix it to fit our preferences. That track, played solely without context, can often distort the discussion about what exactly we can expect. The hazy audio from Ocean’s leaked session will be enough for some to conclude that his new album will reaffirm the rapper’s place as one of R&B’s great narrative storytellers.
Our diverse and increasing leisurely listening habits force record labels to hack through the confusing and diverse minefield of potential platforms available. Beyoncé in 2013 changed the game when it came to surprise releases. When delay after delay appeared to signal Bey was struggling to follow 2011’s 4, the singer suddenly dropped her self-titled fifth studio album, complete with a music video for each track – a tactic that many artists have since replicated, to varying degrees of success. Adele’s phenomenally successful 25 tests her fanbase’s loyalty by not offering a stream. This pressure has led to an increasing prevalence of botched roll-outs that strangle an artist’s work with first-listen reviews from thousands of blogs before a lot of people are even aware that it’s dropped.
At the same time, some musicians are beginning to accept that this shift in consumption habits is inevitable, and embrace the new possibilities that it opens up in presenting their art. Nothing personifies this better than Kanye West and the arrival of his latest record The Life of Pablo. On the one hand, the album appeared trapped within a world of personal insecurity that didn’t exist when, ten years ago, West built his hit “All Falls Down” on mocking the notion of people being so self-conscious they become unable to exist in a way that’s productive to themselves. However, TLOP did question whether it was even necessary for an artist to submit work rigidly fixed in a moment of time any more, when instead both artist and fan could contribute to a process that allows the music to breathe and mature, whether that’s picking album titles via Twitter’s only recently launched polling feature or inviting people to Madison Square Garden to help pick a tracklist.
“The Life Of Pablo did question whether it was even necessary for an artist to submit work rigidly fixed in a moment of time any more”
Acknowledging that the system has changed is not a call to return to the days of standing outside HMV on release day, or hoping that your older cousin will snag you a copy from his mate. Where channel ORANGE demonstrated the value in nuanced storytelling, TLOP showed that presenting a body of work is now a fluid concept that welcomes us into the studio, and, if done right, can help perfect the sound – provided we don’t allow our desire to be fed a constant stream of non-intentioned button-pressing to sell us or the artist short. We’re at a fascinating crossroads where the future of the album looks really fun or totally futile.