On Frank Ocean, Kendrick Lamar, Mac Miller & What It Means to Be Seen

The album is not the artist, but the artist can always make another album.
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“My novel begins in September 1973. That’s the entrance. Sure hope there’s an exit. Not much point in writing all this if there isn’t.” —Haruki Murakami, Pinball

We create to process and escape the present tense. Emotions are acidic and they eat away at us until we can do little to ignore them. There must be some type of expulsion. For me, that is writing. For artists, we’d hope, that is the function of their music: a total expunging of what nettles them. If something keeps an artist up at night, we can only hope it makes it into a song. If only because no emotion occurs in a vacuum, and chances are we are up just as late as our favorite stars, and we are struggling on humanity just as much. That collective struggle, that community formed across music, is the best part of being a rap fan.

And yet, there is inborn toxicity to this relationship. Nothing too sinister, just a simple pattern of forgetting and trapping that happens as fans sink into their favorite albums by their favorite artists. For all the movement an album can hold, it is still a snapshot of a headspace. We oft forget that artists are more dynamic than their albums, and they will continue to grow beyond their last offerings. For better or worse, by the time the album is in our hands, the artist has likely moved into a new mental state. They feel better, or they feel worse, but it would be truly killer if they felt the same no matter how badly fans wish their favorite artists stayed in one place.

The confounding thing is that fans wish for artists to grow and improve, but all the while many of them call for the same exact music. This is why we have the sophomore slump as a curse, why people decry any album that isn't the debut album, and why experimentation is often maligned until years later when fans can see (and hear) with some measure of lucidity.

This is also why artists like Frank Ocean, Kendrick Lamar, and Mac Miller, who are not strangers to taking the pit of their lowest emotions and leaving them on wax, find themselves misunderstood by the people who love them most. We bond to the music, but forget that an artist is a person. We forget that the artist must move on—just as we move on by listening to the music—through the process of creation and release. We see the artist as a product, but we forget to see them as a whole.

“I feel like there was dissonance between how I was seen by the audience and where I was actually,” Frank Ocean said in a new GQ profile. “I would describe a person as the space between the symbols, beyond the language. That dissonance—the word being a big container for what I was feeling…the way I was seen was not even close to correct. It's still not correct, either.”

What Frank Ocean identifies here is the porous line we draw when we box in artists per the albums we connect with. It would be disingenuous to assume that once Frank released Blonde, he remained Blonde for all of eternity. Time may stop moving when the album comes on—a beautiful record, for the record—but time does not stop moving for Frank Ocean. It’s important to note that he sees himself as ephemeral; as a drifting and unpinnable being.

The headline for the GQ profile reads “Frank Ocean Is Peerless,” but really, what Frank is telling us is that he is free. His vessel may be language and music, but he lives in the spaces between.

Frank Ocean taps into language and music to increase the distance between himself and his medium. That is to say, he lives his life away from his communicative soul. Only then can he make the music we cherish, and the moment we appreciate the distance between Frank and the music, the more we will be able to appreciate Frank Ocean the artist and not Frank Ocean the guy who made Blonde.

This is why his cover of “Moon River” is so pertinent to his growth as an artist. Not an original offering, it is the way in which he describes the cover (“I thought the song was small and beautiful and neat. It's the ‘ocean in the drop’ idea, all these feelings inside this small thing”) that somehow puts us on equal footing with him.

Consider the way he approaches his cover as a means of interpretation is how a fan might interpret the music. His ginger touch and admiration for the original match our admiration of his music, but it is his ability to turn admiration into an opportunity to breathe that we can surely learn from. We must allow Frank Ocean to come up for air. There must be existence for Frank from Blonde just as we have a built-in entrance for our emotions. We are not the only ones entitled to catharsis, after all.

Perhaps this is why Kendrick Lamar has yet to make the ultimate connection to language, too. “I’m obsessed with my craft and what I’m doing,” Kendrick told Vanity Fair. “It’s an urge that’s in my every day. That urge to make an ultimate connection with words to man. And I don’t feel I’ve done that yet.” The urge he’s speaking to is undoubtedly—in the scope of Frank Ocean’s commentary—the urge to be seen. When Kendrick does connect with language, he leaves himself so bare on the page, his music presents as difficult to listen to at times because it is so honest.

The notion of an ultimate connection suggests that when he is living in the space between the words, as Frank Ocean lives, he is experiencing something he is struggling to communicate. Whether or not he can communicate does not fall on the fans’ shoulders, but there is an element of expectation and pressure that likely stands in his path all the same. We have to let Kendrick Lamar breathe and live. Kendrick must exit To Pimp a Butterfly if we ever hope for him to enter his next opus. We must see him both as Kendrick Lamar, the man who made an album of a generation, and as Kendrick Lamar, a man who is currently working. Appraise him in the present progressive, as in, appraise him as dynamic. Everyone will be better for it.

“You know what’s funny? I feel like the public perception of me varies on who you ask. But I think there’s a bit of a freedom in knowing that people are going to think all types of shit, no matter what. It actually makes me less stressed about how my actions are perceived. It’s out of my control. I mean, to a degree … I could control it. I could live this squeaky-clean life and everything. I could try to control the media. But I’ve just been finding a freedom in just living and letting people say whatever the fuck they want. Like, do I really, really care what Hollywood Life is saying? If I read a headline, and I’m like, ‘Wow, that’s completely untrue …’ I’m like, ‘That’s as far as it goes. Okay, cool. So a bunch of kids now think that.’ Fine. As long as I have people that are hearing my music and there’s still that relationship.” —Mac Miller, Vulture interview

Then we have the case of Mac Miller, whose persona in the music and personhood in his day-to-day was so knotted that headlines ahead of his final album, Swimming, had to assure us that he was not actually depressed. Mac Miller’s career and how he has been seen across it has been unfairly rigid. He was first the party rapper, despite the variety of his music. Then he was the abstract rapper, despite the clarity of his writing. Then he was the depressed rapper, despite headlines and collaborators promising us that he is okay in his own Mac Miller way. Perhaps there is a fear there, too, that if an artist recovers they are suddenly lying to us. But in his Vulture interview, Mac does not have any fear, only an understanding that he may never be truly seen.

Mac Miller found himself at peace with going unseen, and he was living an artist’s dream much like Frank Ocean. He found a space in which we can enter and exit his creative productions without having to fear public perception because it has been so wrong for so long. He had acclimated to the Without of the situation. At the time of his final interview, he was living between words and creating the best music of his life. Perhaps Swimming was his ultimate connection, but the greater point is that he made one.

The lesson here, for artists, is to continue living because a lack of control in one arena only means you can exercise control in another. For fans, the lesson is to remember that albums are exit doors. Artists are leaving the emotions of an album necessarily behind once the record reaches our speakers, and there is a respect that must come with that knowledge. They will enter a new space, and we will enter it with them, but we can only appreciate their moving on if we see them as dynamic. 

The album is not the artist, but the artist can always make another album.

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