Is It Futile to 'Dissect' Frank Ocean's Work?

The new season of a beloved podcast series smartly seeks not to taxonomize the monastic artist’s discography, but to contextualize it.

Frank Ocean performing at the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in June 2014
Frank Ocean performs at the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in June 2014 (Jason Merritt / Getty)

Frank Ocean defies categorization. Whether in genre, medium, sexuality, or personal ethos, the reclusive artist has nimbly resisted both binaries and boundaries throughout his career. Ocean has been a singer, songwriter, producer, rapper, visual artist, photographer, model, and muse. For the four years between his debut studio album, Channel Orange, and his almost impossibly delayed 2016 followup, Blond(e), Ocean was also something of a fugitive.

For those who remember the dark days of the pre-Blond(e) years, the newest installation of Cole Cuchna’s Dissect, an engrossing and critically beloved longform music-analysis podcast, is here to illuminate the backdrop of Ocean’s intermission. The first episode of Dissect’s third season, released Tuesday, begins by retreading the once-interminable timeline between Channel Orange and Blond(e). Cuchna, a music obsessive who began the podcast to give rap the type of analytical treatment most often reserved for classical music, endeavors not to taxonomize Ocean’s discography, but rather to contextualize it.

Cuchna opens by mapping each pit stop along the “excruciatingly long” interval between records, reminding listeners of every cryptic Tumblr post, missed release deadline, and overanalyzed hint listeners obsessed over while holding their collective breath for the album that would become Blond(e). The cumulative effect of this meticulous chronology is a sobering reminder of just how long Ocean kept listeners waiting (and how potent fans’ entitlement grew in the interim). We are reminded that Ocean began to disappear from the public shortly after the Channel Orange tour, that celebrity weighed heavily on him, that July 2015—the first release date offered for the album Ocean then referred to as Boys Don’t Cry—seemed to stretch on endlessly. From the opening segment of this season’s Dissect, Cuchna approaches the enigma of Frank Ocean with curiosity and reverence.

Calling Ocean’s work “beautiful and thoughtful and authentic and full of sonic depth,” Cuchna explained to Pigeons and Planes why he selected the monastic R&B artist as Dissect’s newest subject: “Specifically, Blond(e) was like a Radiohead Kid A moment for me. Here’s this artist with a massive commercial yet artistically pure album in Channel Orange, and he follows it with a highly experimental, nuanced, and in many ways challenging album in Blond(e).”

After itemizing the obstacles leading to Blond(e), Cuchna steps back to invite listeners to trace a much longer timeline: the life story of Frank Ocean, née Christopher Edwin Breaux. The brief but thorough biography draws on details Ocean has shared previously: A young Ocean moved from Long Beach, California, to New Orleans with his mother, Katonya, often sitting in on her university classes. These courses, as well as car rides through Louisiana—and a formative encounter with Prince’s work—shaped his understanding of music and all it could encompass. It’s with this foundation that the podcast charts, as Cuchna narrates, “the evolution of Frank’s sound from the singer-songer structures of Channel Orange songs like ‘Thinkin Bout You’ to the intimate, atmospheric introspect of Blond(e) tracks like ‘White Ferrari’.” This commitment to mapping the arc of Ocean’s work—not just lyrically, but stylistically—lends Dissect a critical gravitas.

The podcast’s third season diverges from the first two both in its breadth and in its choice of subject. Cuchna also produced the first two seasons independently, while this third installation is the first since he announced a partnership with Spotify. The first season, which Cuchna shared in 2016 while working full-time, dove into the meaning and mechanics of Kendrick Lamar’s baroque To Pimp a Butterfly. The second season, which arrived in 2017, tackled the conundrum of Kanye West’s catalytic My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Both Lamar and West are fascinating subjects who have produced urgent, genre-shaping work. But their voices, especially Kanye’s, continue to ring loud in the chorus of public discourse. Put more plainly, it doesn’t feel like either man is going anywhere any time soon. Each of the rappers’ respective seasons, then, is less an exhaustive look at an artist’s growth and more an extensive examination of one milestone along the path to superstardom.

Ocean is, of course, a different sort of artist. Where Lamar and West are ubiquitous presences—with the latter certainly occupying far more tabloid real estate—Ocean is distant. For both Cuchna and listeners, mining his work is a more intimate, yet far-reaching, endeavor. This helps explain why the new season devotes ample time in its first episode to one of Ocean’s less-analyzed records, 2011’s Nostalgia, Ultra. The mixtape, which Ocean released early into his deal with Def Jam Records partly to force the label’s hand, offers a glimpse into his aesthetic leanings and his poetic tendencies. Cuchna’s parsing of the Coldplay-evoking “Strawberry Swing” takes care to name how Ocean telegraphs his anxieties in part through shifts in musical timbre: “As we listen, notice how the music begins sounding lo-fi and thin, as if Frank is in his room singing along to the cassette tape. Over time, that lo-fi sound gradually ascends with more clarity and fidelity, as if we’re being eased into Frank’s fantasy world of nostalgia.” It’s hard to contest the poetry of Ocean’s lyrics, but Cuchna’s decision to lead with production notes renders his analysis as immersive as the music itself.

It’s unclear whether Dissect will eventually offer up new reportage on Ocean. But so far, the depth and breadth of Cuchna’s research is impressive. His analysis of Nostalgia, Ultra, for example, is buttressed by a segment on the history of the mixtape, which traces the medium’s usage back to the early days of DJ culture and hip-hop’s spread from house parties to living rooms. Including a snippet of a rare Grandmaster Flash sequence as part of this background, Cuchna links Ocean’s form to its conceptual forebears. In doing so, he establishes a method for understanding the artist that is remarkably comprehensive, especially considering the subject’s reticence. Rather than listing trivia ad nauseam, Dissect creates a three-dimensional audio tapestry, partly by weaving in Ocean’s voice through his music and his early interviews. It would’ve been easy for Dissect, as a project, to feel like a meandering, obsessive fan dive into a particular musician’s work. But Cuchna marries enthusiasm and rigor with intention; to listen to him trace Ocean’s footsteps is to recognize the extent of the host’s preparation.

Even so, there are a handful of moments that are unintentionally comedic. Hearing Cuchna recite Urban Dictionary definitions is a bit giggle-worthy, but it’s refreshing that he doesn’t take a definitive tone when referencing the parts of Ocean’s life most obviously shaped by the singer’s blackness or his experiences with poverty. Dissect is enthralling not because it speaks for its subject, but because Cuchna connects disparate threads and amplifies the artist’s voice in the process. Frank Ocean, more than either Kendrick Lamar or Kanye, has thus far spoken to us in whispers—Dissect is just holding up a mic.