“I got two versions,” Frank Ocean sings, his voice distorted, slurring and almost sludge-like. It’s an apt way to kick off what appears to be the first single from his upcoming new album proper. Frank first used the phrase in a Tumblr post back in 2015, leading to the presumption that he was referring to the magazines he was holding in the picture. Now it appears that the “two versions” in question are a pair of separate albums that he’s releasing this week, each representing a different facet of his art. Or could it be that there’s two versions of this same one track? You can never truly tell with Frank.
Debuting via a glitzy music video on Apple Music just a day after the release of visual album ‘Endless’, it’s a clear statement of intent, a sonic line-in-the-sand, for what’s to come on this second record, the one with the former working title of ‘Boys Don’t Cry’. While ‘Endless’ was challenging and avant-garde, but meandering in places, ‘Nikes’ is softer, yet more immediate and impactful.
The hook is hardly the Frank-goes-pop direction that we all expected, but the sonic textures (Ocean’s vocals in particular shift from falsetto and autotune to distortion) shows his knack for making pop music with a difference, as his voice floats along the euphoria-reaching synths.
Lyrically, Ocean again mixes the high with the low brow, acknowledging the injustices facing black Americans today (giving shout outs to fallen comrades Pimp C, A$AP Yams and Trayvon Martin) while also addressing (glorifying?) the excesses of modern life, doing so in a fluid way reminiscent of ‘Channel Orange’. It’s hard to argue against ‘Nikes’ being the best thing Ocean has released since ‘Pyramids’.
Coupled with a striking, hedonistic clip that sees Ocean contemplative at parties and in empty theatres, an A$AP Rocky cameo, naked women in Damian Hirst-style water tanks and, erm, a very glittery butt, it’s a bold comeback that’s worth the at times agonising four-year wait. Frank, everything is forgiven.