Updated at 9:44 a.m. ET on August 16, 2021
Five years to the month after releasing arguably the best album of the 2010s, the spotlight-shy Frank Ocean has emerged to share something with the world again. Late last week, he began touting something called “Homer.” “My hope is to make things that last, that are hard to destroy, set it in stone,” he wrote over a picture of himself holding his hand to his heart. “This is 3 years in the making and there is so so much I’m excited to share with all you strangers.”
Fans went berserk. Ocean, they guessed, was about to do a rare thing: release new music. Though he’s been one of the most-hallowed names in popular culture since about 2011, he’s only ever put out two full-fledged, traditionally released albums. Each one is widely considered a classic of emotionally devastating, boundary-breaking R&B. “Streets saying Frank Ocean dropping soon,” read a fan’s tweet that was shared more than 1,000 times. “I need to find a [girlfriend] and get my heart broken real quick.”
Heartbreak did ensue for many fans, but not for the reason they expected. Ocean’s Homer project isn’t a sonic masterpiece, but a luxury brand focused on jewelry. The singer has opened a store in Manhattan and distributed a mail-order catalog to sell brightly colored, diamond-studded ornaments (plus some scarves) priced from $395 to $1.9 million. The Homer website does stream music—but it’s a previously released album by the rapper 454, whom Ocean must be a fan of.
Here is one of the least-loved rituals of modern music fandom: getting hyped for something that turns out to not be music. Rihanna has spent much of the past five years building a successful fashion empire, but every time she posts about her Fenty Beauty brand, she’s swamped with comments asking about her next album. Kanye West diehards have both fist-pumped and grimaced through his shoe drops and political proclamations—and they are now having their patience tested as he keeps moving back the release date for his new album. The legions who follow Lady Gaga or Kendrick Lamar have lived through years in which their faves seemed to skip the recording studio to work on eye shadow or launching a creative agency.
Such efforts offer reminders that pop stars are, on some level, just influencers with brands to monetize. But they also show how musicians occupy a distinct cultural place that is different from that of a TikTok darling or fashion mogul. There’s a reason that the stereotype of modern pop fans is that they’re so devoted, you don’t call them fans; you call them “stans.” Good music can feel like the most valuable commodity in the world to the people who consume it—and yet the economics of fame, among other factors, encourage artists to branch into other arenas.
I checked the Frank Ocean subreddit a day after the Homer launch. It was not buzzing with stans endorsing the artist’s new project. Instead, people were sharing memes, essays, and rants accusing Ocean of being an out-of-touch scammer who’d betrayed his own lyrics. Many of these complaints referenced an older grievance: The delivery of vinyl records and T-shirts that fans had bought in 2019 was extremely delayed. But fans also aired deeper, more existential concerns about Ocean releasing pricey objects rather than music. “The beauty of [Ocean’s] art has always been its relatability and accessibility,” one person wrote. “His fans find a piece of themselves in the stories, and few are better storytellers. Frankly, no one gives a fuck about no million dollar earrings.”
To hear Ocean tell it, his new project is not a cash grab: It’s an extension of his own artistic desires. In a Financial Times interview, he spoke of his lifelong fascination with jewelry, his distinct tastes in fashion and design, and the way that his interest in permanent objects connects to racism (a descendent of enslaved people, he can’t trace his family history very far back) and inequality (after growing up poor, he’s now “fortunate to be someone who can make someone else feel like they have possibilities”). His lyrics have always attested to his keen eye for the look and feel of the physical world—and for the trappings of wealth. All of this feeds into Homer, whose baubles evoke vending-machine toys and Keith Haring designs. Nostalgia, queerness, exclusivity, play, and ambition: The aesthetic is very Frank Ocean.
Fans might, therefore, see something to like in the project. Over the past few days, people on the Ocean subreddit began sharing stories and pictures from their visit to the Homer store—which included bragging about the gear they ended up buying. Some of these posters jokingly acknowledged that they were spending money on a project they had objected to. But it’s worth noting that Ocean’s foray into jewelry is likely not premised on mainly selling things to his fans. The singer clearly wants to influence society in a way that music can’t—with a company that might compete with the iconic luxury brands he often sings about. His preexisting fame as a musician just gives him the platform and capital to attempt that. “I didn’t want our work to be any less expensive than Cartier,” he told the Financial Times.
Famous artists branching into various pursuits is nothing new, but in the 21st century, pop stars who aren’t multi-hyphenates are rarer than the ones who are. One reason is obvious: Sustaining a music career is incredibly taxing. The continuously shifting tastes of the public make continued success impossible to guarantee; the demands of touring are more grueling than the demands placed on almost any other variety of famous person; pop stars are identified with their work in a way that can make criticism and media coverage extremely personal. It’s no coincidence that so many songs by people who have achieved success tend to focus on the drag of fame (see: Billie Eilish, age 19, already fantasizing about quitting the biz and moving to Kauai).
So is it any wonder that Rihanna, who put out seven albums over the first eight years of her career, slowed the pace of her musical output at a certain point? Wouldn’t you do the same? Add in the financial incentives at play—with each stream of a song on Spotify bringing in only fractions of a penny, which are then divided among labels, songwriters, and distributors—and it seems only natural to start prioritizing skin-care products over catchy songs. “Rihanna understands her value,” the radio personality Skyy Hook told Page Six this year. With fashion, Hook added, “There are not 50 people in Rihanna’s pocket before she even sees her profit. There are very little middle men in fashion compared to the music industry.”
The artist’s prerogative is really to do whatever they feel like doing, and die-hard fans tend to understand that. But part of the frustration that you currently see in, say, Frank Ocean’s fan community stems from the cultural economics that Homer lays bare. Music has never been more plentiful, easier to access, or cheaper to listen to. It’s often more remunerative to sell eye shadow and earrings. Yet the demand for life-changing songs remains greater—hotter, more desperate, more widely expressed—than it does for basically any other product. To a lot of people, a song feels way more valuable than a million-dollar necklace.
This piece originally stated that Frank Ocean cleared his Instagram page last week. He did so last December.