There are few living artists as frustrating as Frank Ocean. He has a wizardly ability to attract rabid speculation and curiosity, and yet for years on end he staunchly refuses to indulge any of it. Live performances and interviews rarely materialize; maybe here and there we’re graced with a cryptic Instagram post. The prospect of an album seems laughable. But still, there’s a constant low-frequency hum of cautious excitement for a Frank Ocean album lurking on Reddit forums or in tinfoil-hat essays on Instagram comments.
Within the last month, Ocean has given his adoring hive a lot to chew on: DJ sets at exclusive nightclub events in Queens, new episodes of his Beats 1 show blonded RADIO, and most tantalizing of all, two brand new songs.
On Oct. 19, Ocean dropped “DHL,” and a few weeks later on Nov. 2 he followed up with “In My Room.” Because the artwork for the two songs seem related — both feature a black-and-white photo of Ocean framed by a title written in colorful, cartoonish lettering — and because he is Frank Ocean, the songs have sparked tremors of speculation as to whether an album is in the works.
“DHL” can most accurately be described as cool. It’s certainly not Ocean’s best writing effort; in fact, the lyrics are a far cry from the polished, poetic lines fans have come to expect from him. But he delivers his bars with a mellow, reserved flow that sits lightly over a similarly pensive instrumental base. On “DHL,” Ocean ditches his signature sparse acoustic production and angelic crooning in favor of rich digital textures underpinned by groaning synthesizers, vocal passages processed to the point of unintelligibility, and, curiously enough, rapping.
Frank has been known to deliver a rap verse here and there, like his stellar features on the A$AP Mob cut “RAF,” and Earl Sweatshirt’s “Sunday,” but it’s a rarity to see him devote an entire track to strictly rap as he does on “DHL.” Though the song is messy overall, and even sounds lazy at times, the last few minutes save the day. The beat dials back a bit; Ocean’s rapping is no longer mired underneath the heavy backing. He sounds crisp and punchy, his effortless charisma on full display. The lyrics themselves are still nothing special, but his emotive flow more than makes up the difference. If Ocean is out to prove he can be a rapper too, he makes a compelling case.
“In My Room,” decidedly the more exciting of the two tracks, includes more rapping from Ocean. Here, though, he sounds more like his hip-hop contemporaries, sprinkling flexes about his wealth and status into a dashy melodic trap beat. Hearing Ocean, the embodiment of melancholy, brag about his watch like a strung-out version of Playboi Carti is a new angle on a brooding pop-genius. It’s interesting for sure, but on its own doesn’t stand as much more than a throwaway. But just like “DHL,” the song is elevated by its last few moments. The verse is fun, if a bit empty, but the outro adds dimensionality to the tune. The rapping ends abruptly, the lazer-affected drums cut out for a moment, and a familiar voice sings, charged with vulnerability. “Quit being violent with me,” pleads Ocean, a vague cry, ambiguous and interpretable in the way so many of Ocean’s lyrics are. He keeps us guessing.