“Lens” Is the Frank Ocean People Love
Frank Ocean has proudly charted his own path in the music industry. He released his breakthrough mixtape without the consent of his label at the time, and then put out his post-superstardom album through a technology behemoth instead of that label, but not before faking everyone out with a meandering visual album released 24 hours prior. But with his blonded radio show on that technology behemoth’s Beats 1, he is temporarily mimicking the industry motions of someone like Drake, who uses that platform to periodically disseminate new music.
Ocean has gotten into the habit of doing this as well. Across the show’s five episodes so far, he has released three new songs: “Chanel”; “Biking,” which features Jay Z and Tyler, the Creator; and, most recently, “Lens” as well as a version of Endless’ “Slide on Me” with Young Thug. After a protracted silence following Channel Orange, Ocean is leaning into a version of prolificacy it had seemed like he was happy to never approach. Still, Ocean’s new offerings have felt, well, like outtakes—less songs that the world needed to hear, and more like an obligatory gesture for the host of a new Apple mix show. “Chanel,” though initially celebrated, would have been better as a blog post, its arresting lyrics never exactly congealing into a replayable song. “Biking” is an interesting campfire folk song, but its star rap verses work only as adornments.
“Lens,” though, is the first of the three that is connected to the universe Ocean constructed on Blonde. That album was, in its own way, isolationist, anonymizing its high-profile collaborations and centering Ocean’s vocals over productions that often lacked percussion, as if he had created them in the sparest way possible, with just a keyboard and a guitar. “Lens” extends this aesthetic. The bulk of the song is just Ocean singing over what sounds like an electric organ, before pitter-pat drums suddenly appear like dripping water. It would fit comfortably next to Blonde’s “Solo” and “Godspeed,” and like much of that album it grapples with sexuality in a way that is unlike anything else happening at the very upper echelon of popular music.
Ocean at once narrates a tattered relationship with a throbbing angst that feels implicitly queer, but he also gets explicit about the broad context of his sexuality, singing, “Sprits watch me, pants down / Can’t be embarrassed of it / I feel their smiles on me.” Acknowledging the historical weight of being a queer black man and then flipping it for power may be the heaviest thought he’s ever put to record, but it’s still a disarming revelation, not in the least because of exactly how it was delivered to the public. This is the Frank Ocean people love—unpredictable, individualistic, and above all, honest.