mensah demary’s previous Liner Notes columns for The Butter can be found here.
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I was in my ex-wife’s car the first time I heard Frank Ocean. Early summer, or late spring, in 2011—we were still married, still friends. Anyway, I remember the car because we had recently purchased it, albeit used—there was no “new car smell,” but it was steam-cleaned and fresh. She drove around town to run errands; I rode shotgun, probably staring down at my iPhone 4. It took a minute or so for me to notice that my head was bobbing to the music.
“Who is this?” I asked.
“Frank Ocean,” she replied.
“Yes,” she said.
“Who’s Frank Ocean?” I asked.
I can be insufferable.
The song was “novacane” from Frank’s debut mixtape, Nostalgia, Ultra. My then-wife gave me a copy, which stayed in my daily rotation for weeks. I remember being shocked at the sound quality of the mixtape; I don’t consider myself an audiophile, but I like to think I have an ear for clarity. Listening to Frank for the first time engendered feelings of clarity, or perhaps clarity itself—there was something fresh in his voice, his lyrics, and I heard Frank clearly.
When he sang “we all try,” for example, there was no ambivalence, or confusion: the song, or “interlude,” is a list of sorts regarding personal beliefs. Frank presented, to me, his refreshingly honest and earnest point of view, with equal parts vulnerability and detachment. And if not detachment, perhaps it is the simple distance between the present and the past.
Many of the songs on Nostalgia, Ultra were moments being reflected upon, remembered, with the detachment akin to the immutability of time. (At some point, you realize all you can do is look back, and move on.) I was also shocked by Frank’s age. He’s seven years younger than me, which is the same amount of years between myself and my older brother. Either Frank was precocious in his early 20s, a so-called “old soul,” or I could relate to him despite entering my 30s, as though I wasn’t as mature and “grown up” as I thought.
Anyway, the detachment—which is essentially time-based, or the result of nostalgia, naturally—is a far cry from Drake, who was — around the time I first heard Frank and Nostalgia, Ultra — putting the finishing touches to his sophomore album, Take Care. I mention Drake because, my fandom notwithstanding (if my Twitter timeline is any indication), he’s an interesting and perhaps extreme opposite peer to Frank. If Frank’s music sounded like the notes and missives of a time traveler observing his own past, then Drake is a real-time documentarian as he navigates both his internal and external lives. Neither perspective is better or worse than the other, and either one can yield or hinder creative success. I prefer both perspectives, but I lean towards one or the other depending on my current mood and temperament.
I’m reflective these days, particularly because my birthday is approaching, and there are changes occurring in my life—meaningful, important (to me) changes. I’m waiting. We are all waiting. As we wait for Frank’s new album, the rumored-to-be-titled Boys Don’t Cry, which Frank promised back in April, due to arrive sometime this month, we are left to wonder if Frank will deliver to us — the faithful who have patiently, dutifully waited for the follow-up to his debut studio album, Channel Orange. We are running out of time, as the end of July approaches; we’re down to mere days.
Meanwhile, as Frank sails around the world or snorkels or whatever the hell he’s been doing since 2013, we endure. As we wait for Frank, we watch Drake (this guy again) and Meek Mill squabble. (The word “beef” feels premature and superfluous, if not downright inaccurate.) This past week, Meek Mill, Philadelphia-based rapper whose album Dreams Worth More Than Money contains a feature with Drake, lobbed incendiary tweets at Drake, accusing the Toronto rapper/singer/6 god of using ghostwriters on Drake’s latest If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late.
By all accounts, the accusations appear baseless. In spite of Drake’s apparent innocence in the matter of ghostwriters, he went ahead and released “Charged Up,” more warning shot than diss track aimed at Meek, on Apple’s new streaming radio service Beats1. And this is all after the disagreement, or miscommunication, between Nicki Minaj and Taylor Swift, which originated on Twitter as well (the highlight being Katy Perry’s incomprehensible tweet as a bewildering attempt to interject herself into the conversation). All of this is entertaining as far as time sinks go. In between the many tweets centered on Drake x Meek or Nicki x Taylor or Nicki x Meek (they’re dating each other, if you didn’t know), a few people appeared on my timeline who, like me, wondered about Frank. While it’s unlikely that a digital music file degrades over time from prolonged use, in the way vinyl records might warp or a cassette tape might pop mid-play, Frank’s continued sabbatical and silence tests the wherewithal of my MP3s.
I’ve played Channel Orange so much since buying it in July, 2012. I’ve driven though different states—Ohio, Indiana, Missouri, Iowa—while listening to Channel Orange. It was the soundtrack of my relocation to Brooklyn. I used it as a springboard into multiple essays, many of them unpublished (or unpublishable). In many ways, Channel Orange paired itself with my life, the way scores attach themselves, and add texture, to movies, at a time when massive shifts occurred.
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If Boys Don’t Cry really is on the way, slated for impending release, I’d like it to arrive sooner rather than later. Within the next week would be perfect, as I leave one job and begin another, as I make a career change I didn’t think possible a year ago. In terms of sound, I have no idea what to expect from Boys Don’t Cry—blame it on Frank’s lack of singles and features. Perhaps it will sound similar to or a natural progression from Channel Orange, an album less rooted in nostalgia. Channel Orange seemed like a portal into possible futures, whether based on reality or pure fiction — as if one is not only unsure of where he’s going, but still uncertain where he’d like to go, if given a choice.
That’s the trick to adulthood, really—realizing that, external forces notwithstanding, where you go is, to a degree, determined by choice. The future, then, is this odd confection of faith, choice, probability, and the randomness of the universe—a freak accident here, an unexpected death there. Silly things I think about these days. I have a little more time, more head space, on my hands, an impromptu holiday between jobs and transitions. I’m patiently waiting, curious to know where Frank wants to go next, as I am curious to see if the paths I’ve chosen lately will take me where I want to go, god willing.
mensah demary is editor in chief of Specter Magazine and a columnist for Fourculture Magazine. His fiction and nonfiction has appeared in Metazen, Little Fiction, PANK, Thought Catalog, and elsewhere. Originally from New Jersey, he currently lives and writes in Brooklyn. Find him on Twitter @mensah4000.