Frank Ocean's Surprising Slide Back to Pop

His team-up with Calvin Harris and Migos on "Slide" scrambles some expectations, but mostly just sounds like summer.

Sony Music

Updated on March 1, 2017

“Frank Ocean appears courtesy of Frank Ocean,” reads the liner notes to Calvin Harris’s new single “Slide,” which in this unseasonably warm late February has kicked off the 2017 song-of-the-summer battle. Most artists only ever appear anywhere courtesy of their record label, but Ocean is a free agent and this song is another surprise move in his ongoing rewriting of pop stardom.

Last summer, the buzzy R&B singer broke years of unexplained silence with a duo of albums, Endless and Blond(e), that defied conventions both musically and business-wise. The latter of the two releases—the one that was actually for sale and had distinguishable songs, in contrast to the free-form streaming audiovisual project Endless—arrived not via his record company, Def Jam, but independently. Through years of wrangling (and the help of Apple, the new corporate patron of label-agnostic pop artists), he had freed himself of the kind of contract that once was considered both prize and necessity for new singers.

It seemed possible he’d then use this newfound liberty to burrow deeper into an anti-commercial, anti-pop mindset. Blond(e) is a masterpiece, but a weird one: mostly free of drums, recognizable song structures, and anything that could be a hit. It took him four years to make, had two competing spellings for its name, and featured a tie-in print magazine. You can understand why its creator might not want to have to run all of his material past Universal Music Group’s A&R. And you might guess that future Ocean projects would become even more esoteric.

But today brings the mostly good news that Ocean has not entirely decided to withhold his talents—a voice that imparts both feeling and attitude, an adventuresome ear, a smart and funny lyrical sensibility—from the radio race. He’s paired up with Calvin Harris, the Scottish EDM star famous for unsubtle but irresistible Top 40 fare like “This Is What You Came For” (his 2016 summer smash, featuring Rihanna) and “We Found Love” (his 2011 summer smash, featuring, again, Rihanna). Rounding out the bill are two-thirds of Migos, the Atlanta rap group enjoying breakthrough national success in 2017 with the tricky-fun album Culture and the No. 1 hit “Bad & Boujee.”

Harris’s knack for consolidating popular trends and nudging them ever-so-slightly forward is on display here, with the beat for “Slide” sucking in Bruno Mars’s recent revivalist funk and Justin Bieber’s airy tropical house for a blend that will only reveal its full potential when heard on the beach. One of Ocean’s latter-day signatures, a squeaky manipulated voice, opens the track with the couplet “I might empty my bank account / And buy that boy with a pipe,” apparently referring to a Picasso painting he wants on his wall.*

The pairing of artists here is notable more for than musical reasons. Asked about the rapper Makonnen who’d just come out as gay, Migos said it seemed “fucked up” and “wack” that he’d previously put on a tough, streetwise persona. The group later gave an apology that said they were fine with gays but that didn’t quite address the stereotypes they’d seemed to endorse. In any case, they are now on a track with Frank Ocean, who shook hip-hop with a 2012 admission of an affair with a man—and who has since scrambled all sorts of expectations about culture, machismo, and sex.

Migos themselves sound great, the stickiness of their distinctive flows suddenly plainer than ever over such a sturdy and sunny beat. Ocean’s verses seem to cryptically, wearily talk about the moment at the end of a night in the club when the lights come up and you see who you might take home; Migos’s lyrics are explicit boasts of wining and dining and heterosexual screwing around the world. The divides between Ocean, Migos, and Harris’s sensibilities couldn’t be clearer, but the song is a reminder of pop’s power to make very different elements slide together.

* This article originally misquoted Ocean's lyrics as “buy that boy a wooden pipe." We regret the error.