Dear April, May, June, July
Frank Ocean’s album Blonde came out in August 2016, but it was not until October that I listened to it in full, and then listened again, and then caught up with some of the hype about it. It had not been necessary to me yet, but all of a sudden it was, and I absorbed it with devotion. I have had similar feelings at various points with Ocean’s work: I somehow need it at a particular juncture. It has felt necessary all of quarantine to me, for example. It feels to me like the perfect soundtrack emotionally, calm and melancholic, not sad exactly but unambiguously affecting. Some moments are rapturous. As has been widely commented, it seems like music of and for loneliness. It evokes reflectiveness, quiet solitude, a sense of nostalgia you can lean into.
It is more than an emotional fit for the moment, however. Since the first time I fell in love with Ocean in October 2016, I have remembered one line from Carrie Battan’s review of Blonde in The New Yorker: “his work feels not only post-genre but post-album, and even post-song.” The concept of “post-song” has come to mind often throughout quarantine, even as it winds to a close for me in New York. In the way Ocean’s work is post-song, there is a way in which I now feel post-day, post-week, post-month. The labels we have collectively decided to attach to time to reasonably divvy it up have dissolved with our inability to separate time spatially, with no events that work as anchors for the concepts of Before and After.
This feeling, right now, is most specifically a response to “Dear April,” one of his two spring public releases with “Cayendo.” Apparently, the track was not written with any kind of quarantine in mind (it debuted at Ocean’s controversial PrEP+ club night in October and has been available for pre-order on vinyl since then), but the song speaks to our current circumstances not unprophetically. Several websites reporting its release in early April announced the arrival of the song in even more obviously religious terms: A writer at the New York Post wrote, “Frank Ocean has blessed us all when we needed it most.”
The particular brilliance of “Dear April” is that it retains its “post-song” status in its ranging non-cohesion, challenging our expectations of time in sound, while simultaneously designating a period of time in its title—and addressing it directly. There is some disagreement on the internet as to what the song means, but in my affective interpretation, I feel sure that when Ocean sings, “Dear April / the only face in the crowd that I know,” a real, specific month, well-defined and recognizable, becomes his interlocutor. As April is addressed, it is identified, to be cherished as a period of time in a mass of incomprehensible happenings.
The speaker of the lyrics struggles to progress, repeating himself often, leaving development throughout the song questionable. He seems to desire motion, at some points believing it has happened: you “made us new / and took us through / and woke us up.” Yet the speaker circles back to question that evolution again and again. The speaker ends the song at its beginning, calling out “Dear April,” as the music fades out. It is a song of swirling non-advancement, and the speaker does not decide whether he is in a gauzy, gorgeous reverie or a troubled dream.
The reason I love the song is because that last point, identifying a motionlessness but remaining undecided as to how to feel about it, is one I recognize. I have enjoyed some parts of the timelessness I think so many of us, as students stuck at home, share right now. I find some comfort in haunting my home, of being attached to a place as helplessly immovable as a ghost. I kind of like that all this time has blurred into one thing. I wonder if it will, in retrospect, be a time of unprecedented stillness.
But even thinking in those terms reveals a striking solipsism that makes me laugh at myself. These past few months have been broken up in the most serious and dire ways. The illnesses of family and friends, the Covid-related deaths of members of my community, the murders of so many, the protests against police violence and racism that shook my city and my country awake, have all been harrowingly real.
Despite all of that, and despite the fact that it is in the media I consume constantly, timelessness is a reality in my quarantine that has proven impossible for me to move beyond, and it is one that I am scared of. I have experienced all of those things from right here, from where I am sitting as I write this. Separated from the spatially dependent aspects of time perception, I am unable to clearly articulate what has happened when, in relation to what. How do I keep in mind that I am living through history when everything that would normally mark change, like a different environment or schedule, is not feasible?
In August 2016, Battan described Ocean’s work as containing “a kind of listless beauty,” which made some sense then, when his variety of structural transgression seemed to unassumingly achieve an astonishing freedom. “Dear April” contains the same quality, but if I map this lack of form onto my reality, what I see is the dark sister of listless beauty, a kind of lazy disquiet, a pervasive feeling that something is wrong that does nothing in particular but sits with me in my room on my computer like everything else does. And like everyone else, I am restless. Ocean sings at one point about April: “I believe that no matter what / It can make us new / Take us through it / and wake us up again.” At the end of July, I think I am waiting for time itself to act, to catch up with itself, to wake us up again.