At the beginning of this year, Frank Ocean took to his infamous Tumblr page to post a picture of a person wearing a hat cryptically embroidered with the words, “IF YOU LIKED 2017, YOU’LL LOVE...2018.” Indeed, this message was vague enough that it could have been interpreted in a number of ways, but unsurprisingly, Ocean fans took the road we’ve so often traveled and got our hopes up for the arrival of new music.
To our credit, at least in this particular instance, these hopes weren’t completely unfounded. Between the steady diet of songs Frank released in 2017, his impressive string of guest features, and a comment he’d made in November about sitting on an unreleased album, wishful thinkers like myself had a legitimate reason to believe that this stretch of abundant output was the 2017 trend Frank was alluding to hastening over the coming 12 months.
Of course, with less than two weeks remaining in the year, it now seems unlikely that we forecasted this correctly. In fact, far from becoming more prolific, Frank actually pared back his musical output in 2018, limiting it to just one cover and three guest features. Still, in contrast to the extended radio silence that preceded the releases of Endless and Blonde in 2016, this slow trickling of output is vastly preferable.
In the days following Blonde, Frank has released several songs that stand among the best of his career, remained in the cultural conversation through collaborations with high-profile artists, and issued convincing reminders of his prodigious skill whenever necessary to keep greedy fans at bay hungry for more. Thus, instead of lamenting the lack of new music as I might’ve in the past, I decided to go the opposite route, putting together the following ranking to celebrate the many gems Frank has blessed us with over the past two years.
Before I begin, a few disclaimers:
- Frank Ocean doesn’t really attach his name to bad songs per se, so don’t think of this as a ranking from worst song to best song, think of it more as a ranking from least great song to most great song. This is an elaborate way of saying don’t @ me if you think I ranked your favorite song too low. Chances are I like this song just as much as you do, but such is the nature of the beast that I was forced to make a few tough decisions to uphold the article’s conceit.
- In determining the rankings of the various features on this list, I weighted both Frank Ocean’s specific contributions to these songs, as well as their overall quality, attaching slightly more significance to the former rather than the latter.
- Informally released remixes like “Slide On Me” featuring Young Thug, “Lens V2” featuring Travis Scott, and “Chanel” featuring A$AP Rocky were omitted from this list, as Frank’s contributions to these songs remained unchanged from their respective originals. Additionally, N.E.R.D’s song “Don’t Don’t Do It!” was excluded from this list, even though Frank wrote its intro, as it seemed unfair to rank this leaked reference track alongside other officially sanctioned releases.
15. “Rolls Royce Bitch (Freestyle)” – 2 Chainz ft. Frank Ocean
Laying down a brief verse that lasts less than 50 seconds, it’s clear from the unpolished mix of his vocals that Frank Ocean was just having a bit of fun here. Nevertheless, he still manages to litter his lyrics with some clever references and sneak in a couple self-aware bars about his place in the industry, rapping, “Copies is selling and I don't know why / Mostly I cockblock myself on the pop.”
14. “Brotha Man” – A$AP Rocky ft. French Montana, Snoop Dogg & Frank Ocean
Like a number of records on TESTING, this song is a beautiful mess, burdened by an excess of compelling yet odd experimentation. I like French Montana as much as the next person, but the choice to have him sing the hook while Frank Ocean faintly harmonizes in the background seems needlessly counterintuitive. Never quite building momentum between a fit of stylistic stops and starts, this song works in parts, but doesn’t quite come together as a whole. Among the song’s standout moments, however, are the few bars Frank holds down, during which he showcases his flair for wordplay (“Water flat like asses pre-Onika”) and offers up witty barbs (“Your deal got catches like an outfielder).
13. “Caught Their Eyes” – JAY-Z ft. Frank Ocean
It speaks to the strength of 4:44 as a whole that this song ranks among the album’s more forgettable moments. It’s well-produced, undeniably catchy, and Hov’s verses are filled with slick insight throughout, but Frank’s chorus, unfortunately, grows a little bit repetitive after a few listens and atypically features lyrics that have absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the song.
12. “CAROUSEL” – Travis Scott ft. Frank Ocean
According to a post on his Tumblr, Frank Ocean claimed that he wrote and recorded his parts of this song “in like twenty minutes.” While the chorus is an infectious earworm that fits entirely within his usual wheelhouse, it’s initially a bit jarring to hear Frank flex his vocals over thick 808s. It’s certainly not an unwelcome or unsuccessful departure, but I can’t help wondering—considering what he was able to accomplish in 20 minutes—if an extra five or so might’ve made his aesthetic jump into ASTROWORLD a bit more seamless.
11. “Slide” – Calvin Harris ft. Frank Ocean & Migos
Back in 2011, when people were still unironically using the term “alternative R&B,” and needlessly comparing Frank Ocean to The Weeknd because of the timing of their respective debuts, I doubt many of us would’ve predicted that their careers would’ve turned out the way they did. Who would’ve guessed that the deliberately anonymous Torontonian would attain pop superstardom, while the extremely marketable Odd Future affiliate would double down on his outsider tendencies and become a recluse?
Listening to “Slide” is like living in a bizarro world where our initial impressions were correct. Reaching number 25 on Billboard’s Hot 100, “Slide” has now unquestionably surpassed “Thinkin Bout You” as the biggest hit of Frank Ocean’s career, giving us a window into what it would be like if Frank ever decided to abandon his auteur status in favor of top-40 acclaim. It’d be a tough tradeoff to stomach as a whole, but I certainly wouldn’t object to hearing Frank apply his idiosyncratic sensibilities to a few more breezy summer jams like this one.
10. “Where This Flower Blooms” – Tyler, The Creator ft. Frank Ocean
The creative chemistry between Tyler, The Creator and Frank Ocean has been apparent since the pair first worked together on the song “She” back in 2011. Tyler has since evolved as a producer, developing a knack for composing the types of layered melodies that showcase the malleability of Frank’s vocal tone in a way that the barebones nature of his own production often doesn’t. On “Where This Flower Blooms,” Frank sounds completely at home singing atop Tyler’s dynamic keys and textured synths, while his mere inclusion on this song—though not its intended purpose—subtly reinforces the lyrical sentiment Tyler expresses about telling "these black kids they could be who they are.”
9. “911 / Mr. Lonely” – Tyler, The Creator ft. Frank Ocean & Steve Lacy
Tyler, The Creator deserves a lot of credit for flipping this song, which otherwise sounds like elevator music, into an undeniable jam. Admittedly, I could have gone either way with the ranking of Frank Ocean’s two Flower Boy appearances, but “911” edges out “Where This Flower Blooms” by a slight margin, because Frank’s brief refrain here hasn’t left my head for more than a week since I first heard it 18 months ago. Featuring an infectious cadence and repetitive phrasing, Frank’s verse reminds me of a radio jingle—somewhat akin to the “Fertilizer” interlude on Channel ORANGE—though, in the best possible way. Fittingly, Tyler’s chord progressions here recollect the jazzier canvasses that were so prominent on that album, fondly recalling a style of production Frank has mostly abandoned since that era.
8. “Moon River” – Frank Ocean
While Frank does indeed transform the 1961 classic with digitally processed vocals, an incredibly tender performance, and a slew of gorgeous harmonies, “Moon River” nonetheless remains a song that has been covered so endlessly that I can’t reasonably justify ranking it any higher on this list. With that said, it is still an incredibly affecting rendition that is liable to move you to tears, which is an incredible accomplishment given that the song is 57 years old.
7. “Purity” – A$AP Rocky ft. Frank Ocean
On this standout track from TESTING, Frank Ocean showcases a masterful flair for flow and imagery as he raps over a tasteful Lauryn Hill sample about how his fans “got they hands out like they acknowledgin' the Führer” and how he “fired the label, like fuck brands.” Given its relatively high placement on this list, I know I should have a deeper reason to justify its standing at number seven, but seemingly all I’ve ever wanted in life is to hear Frank Ocean alongside Lauryn Hill on a song, so here it is.
6. “RAF” – A$AP Mob ft. A$AP Rocky, Playboi Carti, Quavo, Lil Uzi Vert & Frank Ocean
Frank Ocean’s raps, even when methodically written, have a certain quality about them that seems free-associative. His delivery, relaxed rather than affected, sometimes has the unintended effect of undercutting his lyricism, causing his voice to blend into the instrumentation rather than attract focus as a separate entity. I can think of very few songs in his discography where he raps for longer than one verse and even fewer where he’s not switching interchangeably between rapping and singing.
Of course, his talents in the latter department far exceed his talents in the former, but on “RAF,” he makes a compelling case to support the idea that perhaps the discrepancy between these two skillsets isn’t as large as I’d imagined. Across two incredibly slick verses, Frank effortlessly co-opts the styles of the other rappers who appear on the song, delivering vivid boasts and oscillating between flows at will.
5. “Lens” – Frank Ocean
Perhaps the least immediately accessible of Frank’s 2017 releases, it took me a few listens to truly appreciate the subtleties that make this song so great. Rather than a passive listen, “Lens” is a song that sucks you into its orbit, rewarding those who pay attention with gems. Take, for example, the exorbitant reverb that envelops Frank’s voice at the beginning of the song. As soon as the track reaches its first chorus, Frank’s vocals are finally allowed to emerge from under the weight of this suffocation, giving way to a satisfying catharsis.
Similarly, the percussion, which seems erroneously sparse on first listen, is gradually added to the song one layer at a time, creating a gratifying payoff when the first snare finally arrives at the 2:33-mark. Even the lyrics, which are difficult to decode on first listen, slowly unravel themselves after a few listens, offering lines like “This thing won’t last unless we’re both lying” as incredible reminders of how effectively Frank is able to convey his emotions in so few words.
3B. “Biking” – Frank Ocean ft. JAY-Z & Tyler, The Creator
From the delicate sprinkling of keys that mark the song’s beginning to the borderline religious experience that is its ending, I can think of no other song that runs the full gamut of emotions as effectively as “Biking.” The song’s opening prelude feels almost dreamlike, giving way to a brief feeling of euphoria, before sobering lyrics like the following eventually bring you back to reality: “The first wedding that I've been in my 20s, thinkin' maybe someone is not somethin' to own / Maybe the government got nothin' to do with it, thinkin' maybe the feeling just comes and it goes.”
To extend the biking metaphor used in the song itself, the song teaches you how to ride a bike, simulates the exhilaration of standing on the pedals while coasting downhill, reminds you of the injuries that can result when you get too cocky, and then—by the time Tyler, The Creator's verse rolls around—teaches you the value of getting back on the bike after a fall and riding again. If you get stuck at some point along this journey, not to worry, because the visceral grunts that conclude the song offer a therapeutic release to truly transcend whatever emotion you’re feeling when they arrive.
3A. “Biking (Solo)" – Frank Ocean
As my wise editor, Brendan Vanan, wrote to me when we were compiling these rankings, choosing between the two versions of “Biking” is like choosing between pie and cake. Both versions have their own merits, certainly, and while most everything I wrote above also applies here, I do miss the sound of JAY-Z’s voice saying the word “oligarch” and the gentle takeoff of the song’s prelude more broadly. The tradeoff for this, of course, is that we get an additional Frank Ocean verse in place of Tyler, The Creator’s, which offers a minor upgrade. This isn’t to say that Tyler’s verse on the original version is bad, but Frank’s verse here features more melody and is complemented by the addition of a beautiful vocal sample that elevates it to another level.
2. “Chanel” – Frank Ocean
It’s not particularly groundbreaking to write about how this song is an anthem of sexual fluidity, but there is something undeniably inspiring about attending a Frank Ocean concert, as I did a year ago, and looking out over a crowd of thousands of people triumphantly shouting the lyrics “My guy pretty like a girl“ regardless of their sexual identities. Yet, to anoint Frank as some sort of activist for simply singing about his life would be to miss the point a little.
Listening to this song, it’s abundantly clear that Frank is far less interested in being a revolutionary figure than he is in flexing, which, to his credit, he does really well here. Lyrics like “I rubber-band a bunch of thousand-dollar Delta gift cards” and “Revenge in the air make my lungs sick” display an unexpected bravado that is impossible not to affect. Meanwhile, subtle vocal flourishes, like the way Frank’s voice cracks during the chorus, and the way he drags out the pronunciation of his words on the bridge, serve to make the song so catchy that it takes up rent-free real estate in your brain for days on end whenever you hear it.
1. “Provider” — Frank Ocean
Whereas other songs on this list might capture a few snapshots of what makes Frank Ocean such a great musician, “Provider” stands in contrast to these snapshots as an immersive virtual reality experience that comprehensively represents his artistry. Reconciling the many gifts he possesses, it’s a song that truly offers something for every Frank Ocean fan in the zeitgeist, spanning offbeat references, experimental vocal processing, subtle wit, emotional gut punches, impenetrable lyrics, impromptu beat changes, indelible earworms, and so much more. Like most great pieces of artwork, attempts to describe the experience of consuming it in words inevitably rob it of what makes it so special, but rest assured, there’s a reason it stands at number one on this list.