At a time when we swipe through thousands of images a day and cruise through thousands of paintings in an hour at an art fair, it’s only the rarest of artworks that we return to again and again. Frank Ocean‘s new triplet — a 17-song album titled Blonde, a shiny zine called Boys Don’t Cry, and a visual album, Endless — is one of those works that will influence future aesthetics. Ocean has given us an audio, visual, and material experience way beyond the repertoire of an R&B singer, collaborating with several contemporary visual artists and writers, as well as musicians for a multilayered project.
It won’t be long until someone produces a full virtual reality (VR) album. Ocean is almost there, with references to VR in the Boys Don’t Cry zine, though he still seems attached to material reality with his glossy publication, visual performative album, and sonic waves of experimental surf rock, hip-hop, and Americana, over which he croons about living offline and in nature. In his multidimensional universe, he falls in love with both sexes, defies racist stereotypes of macho black men, and his aunt begs him not to do drugs while he trips and blazes throughout his lyrics. Stop trying to define me, says Ocean.
Rather than try to paint an image of a god, as is fashionable today, Ocean has carefully created the image of a human living on this earth. The zine is a scrapbook, but it’s also a catalogue of his vision for plurality. It’s futuristic and rustic at the same time, an aesthetic that he calls “a perfectly lived-in moment” in a screenplay he wrote and published in the hefty publication, which was given away for free at pop-up shops in select cities. The zine includes many pages of cut-and-pasted text, traditional zine style, and many NSFW images of what appear to follow the artist’s life over the last four years since the release of his breakout Channel Orange. There are also interviews, poems by Kanye West and Tyler the Creator, as well as screenshots of visual photo inspiration from his desktop and friends’ browser histories.
The imagery that Ocean chose for the publication offers a window into his creative process. It seems to be visual documentation of the album’s making and also a testimony to the lived experience that goes into making art. In the visual album/performance, Endless, which came as a teaser before the release of Blond and the Boys Don’t Cry, Ocean seems to say that the only way to get to heaven is to build a staircase yourself.
Ocean shows us that mastery is patience. There was speculation that the artist is a depressive introvert who had a breakdown and would never release new music again. Judging by the images in Boys Don’t Cry, he hasn’t been locked away in his house hiding from the world. He’s been living his lyrics as he writes them — riding retro Porsches and B&Ws, tripping on mushrooms and LSD, falling in and out of love over text messages, and defying definitions of pop stardom by challenging preconceived notions about manliness — wearing mascara and performing vulnerability.
— Tre’vell Anderson (@TrevellAnderson) August 21, 2016
The publication and the video both speak to the muddy material world, where Ocean isn’t afraid to get dirty, hurt his pride, or have his heart broken. The internet is begging for a PDF version of the Boys Don’t Cry publication, but it’s so glossy that photographs go out of focus and the images are obscured by glare. The book is too cumbersome to scan. You have to have it in your hands to experience it.
Artist Tom Sachs, one of Ocean’s collaborators in the creation of the video along with Wolfgang Tillmans, revealed that 45 minutes of footage was edited down from around 140 hours. In the video, a double image of Ocean can be seen cutting wood, sanding, painting, and assembling a spiral staircase that leads upward into nothingness.
“Speaking of nirvana, it was there,” Ocean sings on the track “Seigfried.” “Dreaming a thought that could dream about a thought that could think of the dream of the thought that could think of dreaming and getting a glimmer of god.”
Blonde sounds hazy and surreal like the sepia images in Boys Don’t Cry. Like the very early morning, right when the sun starts to come up and everything’s sort of trippy, and the light creeps up on you like love.