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On “RAF,” Frank Ocean’s Singular Rapping Is Blunted By Its Context

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 29: Frank Ocean attends the TIME 100 Gala, TIME's 100 most influential people in the world, at Jazz at Lincoln Center on April 29, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Ben Gabbe/Getty Images for TIME)

The songs Frank Ocean has released in 2017 are like condensed, haute couture permutations of “Futura Free,” a world-weary hosannah that closes last year’s Blonde. After an hour of that album’s prismatic soul-searching, the meandering “Futura Free” nonetheless feels like catharsis, with Ocean musing about his come-up from minimum wage to millions. All of his new songs—”Chanel,” “Biking,” Lens,” and now “RAF,” which is actually an A$AP Rocky song—have been surprise drops at inopportune hours (Friday nights, and most recently, Monday morning), communicated to us via Ocean’s sporadic Apple Music show blondedRADIO. As such, they have not felt foisted on up—instead, it really does feel like Ocean has carefully curated these balmy detours soundtracking his lucid raps. Slick rhyming has been the connecting thread through these releases, but “Chanel”—the first of the bunch—was the only song where it felt like Ocean was unlocking new multitudes with every turn of phrase. (“Lens,” another keeper, barely features any rapping at all.) Even with Frank’s talents, that’s a hard thing to do song after song; some of the hits will necessarily land inside the park.

The songs are also connected by how very much of Ocean’s universe each is, as if they’re newly discovered planets in a solar system scientists have long been observing. That quality takes a backseat in the latest blondedRADIO premiere, “RAF,” an A$AP Rocky cut that also features two of the trendiest rappers on Earth: Quavo and Lil Uzi Vert. The song’s cartoonish riff and detuned key stabs are joyously peculiar, but the guests here play it fairly by the book—an oddity for a group of artists who pride themselves on being otherwise. Raf Simmons turns out to be an ineffective muse, only serving as an esoteric prompt for low-hanging punchlines. There’s a cipher quality to A$AP Rocky that makes him a good model but can read unenthusiastically on a recorded song, especially when he’s hitting obvious layups like, “Squeeze pumps like asthma”. The other two rappers pretty much perform how’d you expect at this point: Quavo spryly centers his verse around an ad-lib, while Lil Uzi Vert mostly sounds happy to be here.

Rocky is the lead artist, but “RAF” still feels constructed around Ocean, who played two versions of the track on his show, each with a different verse from him. The first version is braggadocio emboldened by Frank-specific asides: a reference to the House of LeBeija, a brag like “Anna Wintour cool with my mama”. But it’s the second, lengthier version that’s superior because it briskly synopsizes his charm: His smoothness is also why people are so happy to be entangled by his dense persona. Raf isn’t the metaphor that Chanel—with Frank invoking Chanel’s double-C logo as an illusion to bisexuality, or perhaps the role fluidity of gay sex—but the bon mots (“Skin too black to blush”) and the dissociated swing of a broken line like “Raf draggin’ off the…. floor, biiitttchh” are enjoyable peeks at Frank’s central dichotomy—the relatable, sometimes vain romantic blooming out of the reclusive enigma. On “RAF,” these ramblings from being placed within a context of far lesser depth.

Listen to “RAF” at the 1:55:00 mark here.

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