Gave You Tools Just to Stay Alive: The Poetry of Frank Ocean

It’s a fairly universal feeling to fear that we are alone in the cosmos, that our prayers and dreams go unheard.

It’s common knowledge, however, that any given street corner is armed with all-seeing surveillance cams. That our telephone calls are being tapped, our internet activity scrapbooked. The greater populace has forfeited its basic right to privacy, accepting that the powers that be are perpetually keeping tabs on us. If we’re not heard, we are at least watched. 

The virtue we receive in exchange is that new media grant the opportunity for individuals to portray the intricacies of their being to the world at large — to expose harsh realities, or to curate an idealized self. The old paranoia of being watched — by the government, by your neighbours, appliances, stuffed animals — has then U-turned into the nightmare of not being watched. A tree timbering in a forest without anyone nearby to hear the thump is hardly dissimilar from posting a picture of yourself that generates zero likes or comments. Confirmation of your existence is fleeting and vulnerable. When you disappear, will anyone notice that you’ve gone?

On August 1st of this year, a webpage that had long been void of activity received a surprising update. It was a black-and-white livestream of an empty workshop on loop. For years the RnB virtuoso known as Frank Ocean had concealed himself in shadow, ostensibly toiling away at a follow-up to his acclaimed 2012 record Channel Orange, fashioning himself a persona not unlike Emily Dickinson or J. D. Salinger’s, transposed to 2016’s frequency. Over the next 2 weeks, Ocean intermittently walked into frame and engaged in carpentry, building up to a finale wherein he finished constructing an ‘endless spiral staircase’ and dropped a visual album. Viewers tuned in. In Endless’s opening track, lifted from a piece by German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans, a robotic voice underscores:

“You can blur the border between still and motion pictures

You can still stream your life

Your life can be streamed

In endless communication

We all show interest in everybody’s life.”

If Endless is not also the convergence point of a confounding art school project, a meta-meditation on the tough love of labour, and a vial drowned in a whole body of water’s worth of lust and yearning, it is primarily 1) a heed to be wary of the irreversible arrival of new technologies, and 2) the artist’s Kunstlerroman. Verses like “Iberville 1995/You’d think there was airstrikes on outside/I put refugees in my villa/Play kids the Fu-Gee-La” recall the period when Frank and his family dwelled in New Orleans, approaching the new millennium adjacent the high-crime, low-income housing Iberville Projects. The closing track is its resolve, a ride off into the sunset — “Hit the road and get rich/Or stay home and get broke/It’s your choice in the end.” Left with a home pulverized by Hurricane Katrina, Ocean had set off in search of a new one, pilgrimaging to Los Angeles to blaze into the songwriter he is today.

It’s only possible to discern his origin story so because fans and critics alike have pored over the lyrics of his latest releases, transcribing, deciphering and annotating the shit out of them. Even the disparity between the title(s) of Ocean’s superior sister project — Blonde in the feminine on iTunes, masculine Blond printed above his face on the cover art — stirred speculation about whether it signifies the musician’s dual interest in women and men, or the fact that his new music exists twofold. Whether there’s a surefire answer or not is inconsequential, because the lyrics are so deep you can’t see the bottom, the scripture’s rich, and it’s nowhere near hyperbole to declare Ocean as one of 2016’s foremost literary entities.

All this mystique and the guy wasn’t even a full-time recluse throughout his retreat. While we only heard word from him via outspoken open letters and late-night Tumblr rants, in a print magazine entitled Boys Don’t Cry, unveiled alongside the album release(s), Ocean admits to having been a hermit about town: “My memories are in these pages, places closeby and long ass-numbing flights away.” Automobiles are indubitably his preferred method of transportation, though, if not the motif of his entire project. Where other eccentrics’ disappearing acts denote foreign lands or padlocked bedrooms, Ocean could almost indefinitely be located inside a sports car. In the poem “Boyfriend,” he writes:

“my boyfriend he gon pick me up

don’t distract him at the wheel

in his lane

he’s the only one

my boyfriend he misses me when i’m gone”

So maybe Frank was secretly everywhere in his absence. Maybe he was in search of a purity that can’t be made out under the spotlight, even with invisible ink, or maybe the name of the game is only ever Media Hype, or maybe he really, truly missed us while he was looking for himself out there. In Boys Don’t Cry, he writes “I wrote a story in the middle. It’s called Godspeed. It’s basically a reimagined part of my boyhood. Boys do cry, but I don’t think I shed a tear for a good chunk of my teenage years. It’s surprisingly my favorite part of life so far. Surprising, to me, because the current phase is what I was asking the cosmos for when I was a kid.” 

Soliloquies Anthology turns 21 this year, a checkpoint it must have been tough for the founders to foresee while they were blowing out its first candles. For everyone who has ever flipped through a copy of Soliloquies or been a part of our team: Godspeed. We hope you like our new and improved anthology and blog. Send us your submissions. If the cosmos aren’t out there listening, at least you know we are.

-- Oliver Skinner, Web Content Editor