But I’ve actually taken to thinking about the “e” in Blond(e) in even more high-concept terms—a symbol of all the ambiguity that fascinates Ocean. The last song on Endless, the visual album he released 48 hours before Blond(e), is called “Higgs,” which may or may not be a reference to the subatomic particle of the Higgs Boson. It’d make some sense if it was: The so-called “God particle” can either contain mass or not, almost immediately disappears into nothingness after coming into somethingness, was first detected by humans in July 2012 (a few days before Ocean’s album Channel Orange arrived!), and, of course, is prone to mis-explanation and misunderstanding by laymen like me.
Which is another way of saying the “e” is for “enigmatic.”
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That a highly anticipated release from a major artist doesn’t have an agreed-upon title fits Ocean’s apparent business mission in 2016, too. To borrow and pervert a buzzphrase, he’s culture jamming, injecting some individuality into a corporatized system and, perhaps, antagonizing it.
On Tuesday, news broke that Ocean was no longer with the major label Def Jam and that Blond(e) had been released independently. A source told Pitchfork that Endless, the aforementioned visual album that immediately preceded Blond(e), “fulfills Frank’s obligations to Def Jam and Universal.”
Ocean isn’t giving interviews, and Def Jam hasn’t officially commented on the situation, but this all seems like some pretty remarkable maneuvering on the artist’s part. He’s previously had a strained relationship with his label, as seen when he put out his debut 2011 mixtape independently on his blog because, he said, Def Jam wouldn’t release it officially. Endless is a decidedly un-album-like “album,” a compilations of demo-like song snippets accompanying a 45-minute video of Ocean building a staircase. You can’t buy the tracks individually or buy any of it in the iTunes store—you can only stream the full video on Apple Music.
Blond(e), it would stand to reason, is going to make more money than Endless for the simple fact that it’s actually for sale. In releasing Endless to fulfill his record contract and then immediately releasing the more anticipated and more monetizable Blond(e) independently, he may be denying the conglomerate he used to work for their biggest potential payday from him yet.
Forbes reports that Universal Music Group, Def Jam’s parent company and currently America’s best-selling record company, is not happy:
For UMG, Blonde has led to a massive rift with one of its key artists and a decision to decouple itself from the lucrative, but oft criticized practice of providing exclusive streaming rights. On Monday, music industry analyst and critic Bob Lefsetz reported that UMG CEO Lucian Grainge sent an email to other executives stating that the company, which represents artists like Drake and Kanye West, would end all exclusives with music streaming companies like Apple. At least two sources confirmed to FORBES that his decision was influenced partly by Ocean’s move to partner with Apple for his newest album.
It would be a major change for the music landscape if Universal really did start blocking exclusives: Huge artists like Drake, Kanye West, and Rihanna are on the company’s roster and have all released exclusives to either Apple or Tidal this year. Ocean ditching a label and releasing music just through Apple is a move that, when taken with his friend Chance the Rapper’s independent release of his acclaimed Coloring Book via Apple, is a sign of why labels might want to ban exclusives. Not only do they limit the potential reach of a work of music, but they also represent an opportunity for artists to make money and distribute their products without a record deal.