Over the course of the past decade, Frank Ocean has transformed from Los Angeles transplant into nascent trendsetter into a generational voice. His presence, punctuated by irregular bouts of silence, has shaped music far beyond the confines of genre specification and cultural convention. Now an enshrined icon in complete command of his artistic faculties, Ocean has returned to the fold with “DHL,” the first official release since his 2018 cover of Audrey Hepburn’s “Moon River.” Originally teased on his Instagram story on December 18th, 2018, the surprise release is far from a weepy shower tune or silky poetic ditty about romantic redemption. Rather, it forgoes the pummeling emotion of “Self Control” or “Solo” in favor of a murky mush of syllables and punctuation, like a cow mulling over the makeup of the cud between its molars. It’s a meandering and mellow tune on which Ocean’s vocals are distorted to match the warped textures of the instrumental.
Produced by German house aficionado Boys Noize, who most recently sculpted the beat for A$AP Rocky’s “Babushka Boi,” “DHL” progresses through several phases without much in the way of melody. Ocean is a writer first and foremost, but “DHL” has the feel of something derived from an off the cuff, late night studio session wherein a woozy array of synths are the ideal bathwater for the mercurial musings that bubble forth. A relaxed, near effortless cadence speaks to Ocean’s formidable talents as an emcee that made him a talking point on Odd Future’s “Oldie,” Earl Sweatshirt’s “Sunday,” and the A$AP Mob cut “RAF.” His chants inch forward with a drugged up swagger, gradually loosening to the point that they become mumbled gloss. The wordplay builds with a similarly cavalier confidence: brushed waves are “ramen noodles,” the “cyst” on his wrist is a luxury timepiece, and the “pack” that he harps on is an anchored drug reference. These double entendre-led hiccups emit the same sort of listless psychedelia and space-bending of “L$D,” as casual vulgarity and an impermanence of pleasure (“Boy toy ride me like an Uber”) are pickled with simpler pleasures such as Starbucks and Kawasaki bikes. Ocean even takes a moment to reference his viral front row look at 2019 Paris Fashion Week, in which he posed alongside Timothee Chalamet in “high-end Euro hiker” attire that featured a puffer jacket, jeans, and a beanie.
Frank Ocean and Timothee Chalamet front row at Louis Vuitton – Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images for Louis Vuitton
Beyond Ocean’s fondness for getting gifts in the mail (a love affair that he spoke about at length in an interview with GQ), it’s rather fitting that the titular international courier service is the muse for this latest stream-of-consciousness. In the final 20 seconds of “DHL,” Ocean’s voice hardens, leaping in to focus having relinquished the wash of effects. It’s the same kind of endorphin rush that comes from returning home to stacks of postal boxes, one made all the more eye-popping by his not-so-subtle “independent jugg” boast about finessing his way out his Def Jam contract with the double release of Endless back in 2016. Of course, we all know what transpired shortly thereafter: the critically-acclaimed Blonde arrived in August of the same year through his independent label, earning him a reported $20 million.
In this respect, “DHL” is not just a reflection of Ocean’s coveted financial freedom, but the even more valuable artistic freedom that comes from being beholden to no one and able to “deliver” on one’s own terms. Speaking about his inspirations with W magazine, Ocean alluded to “the many different iterations of nightlife” that have dominated his creative headspace as of late, and his desire to make songs that feel like “full motion-picture fantasies.” Though there’s no news on an album just yet, this revealing tidbit and the snippets that have since gone public would seem to point to something much bigger (and groovier) in the works. The club vibrations of New Orleans bounce are particularly prominent on Sango’s remix of “Cayendo,” one of two new tracks alongside “Dear April” that Ocean previewed during the first installment of his PrEP+ party series last week (both tracks are up for purchase on his website as 7” vinyl). Named after a drug designed to help prevent HIV in high-risk communities, Ocean’s rather exclusive homage to the vibrant queer culture of NYC during the 1980s was accompanied by the resurrection of blonded RADIO, during which fans were first treated to “DHL”’s rummaging teases about “old files…coming soon” and “new files” sharing space on Ocean’s prized hard drives.
Frank Ocean at the Met Gala 2019 – Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images
While there’s the very real possibility that such audio files may not see the light of day for years (Blonde cuts “Ivy” and “Seigfried” premiered at live shows back in 2013 and 2014, respectively), the 13 silhouetted figures lining the bottom edge of the “DHL” cover art have fans convinced that there’s more coming down the pipeline: the fourth icon is highlighted, which many have surmised to be a hint at a forthcoming 13-track ensemble in which “DHL” is but a single. Amidst the swirling rumors and empty guarantees of cyberspace, perhaps Ocean will bless music’s proverbial doorstep before the year is out, preferably in the form of a full-bodied package.