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What André 3000 Taught Frank Ocean

2016 Winter TCA Tour - Disney/ABC - Arrivals
André 3000. Photo: Jerod Harris/Getty Images

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This is what you see — perhaps when you die — but also if you Googled “André 3000” yesterday.

The context: the tenth track of Frank Ocean’s new independently released album, Blonde, is “Solo (Reprise).” André 3000 is not simply on the song; he is the song, rapping for one straight minute. The verse-long track ends with this thought from André:

After 20 years in, I’m so naïve
I was under the impression
That everyone wrote they own verses
It’s comin’ back different and yeah that shit hurts me
I’m hummin’ and whistlin’ to those not deserving
I’ve stumbled and lived every word
Was I working just way too hard?

This is the part that started the Drake tizzy. The assumption: After a year of speculation surrounding Drake’s use of ghostwriters, André chimes in — with a diss.

If you first discovered Outkast with “Hey Ya,” focusing on this makes sense. But if you’ve been following André’s whole career, lines like this would not register shock: This type of self-reflective pseudo finger-wagging is part of what he’s been doing for more than a decade, often using his biannual guest verses as a summary of sorts, on what he sees happening in the hip-hop distance. (Also, Drake is hardly the only rapper using ghostwriters these days.) As he said on DJ Drama’s “Da Art of Storytellin’ (Part 4),” “I tell it like it is, then I tell it how it could be.”

It’s like that moment at a family gathering, when everyone is bickering — your mother with your aunt, two of your cousins, a father and son — and then, in the corner, the grandmother, the matriarch who has said nothing all day, stands up, causing everyone to freeze and pay attention. And, one by one, she reads everyone their rights, calls everyone out for being ridiculous, reminds everyone that she didn’t raise us to behave in such an uncouth manner, and then sits back down and says nothing, until next Thanksgiving.

Even since his earliest Outkast days, André Benjamin has been a champion of the long verse (see: Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik’s “Git Up, Git Out,” clocking in at 1:14). He started truly going solo with the form in 2003 on the final track of his genre-all album The Love Below, “A Life In the Day of Benjamin André (Incomplete),” on which he told some of his life story in the form of rapping for four minutes and 40 seconds straight. Since 2006, he’s used his space as a featured artist to deliver André Benjamin State of the Unions, like his appearance on Future’s “Benz Friendz (Whatchutola)” in 2014, which dedicated numerous bars to having increasingly few cares about brands and shiny things. And when he’s not giving his societal two cents, he’s doing full lyrical workshops, as he did in 2015, joined his former mate Erykah Badu for “Hello,” delivering a verse in which he almost raps a circle around himself.

The fact that these long, densely packaged verses now only appear as rare guest spots has only increased his legend for some — the Salingeresque hermit leaving his house in the woods a few times a year, maximum, to bless another artist’s song like the Pope might, as a reminder to all that he’s still the among the all-time best, that he’s still watching us, and that he still has plenty to say.

To others, it’s a demotion — going from half of one of the most legendary duos in music history to someone who suddenly will pop up on a Kesha or B.o.B. song.

Some years ago, I got into an argument with a friend, who said that while André’s verses were impressive, in both scale and content, most rappers could put together something of similar quality if they had the time or means to only release one or two a year.

It’s an interesting, albeit wrong, opinion. Perhaps there is a yet-to-be discovered dimension in which Tyga would deliver a mind-bending, culture-shifting two minute verse if he had six months to work on it. Sarcasm aside, maybe if you gave Drake — already a rapper that can run-on sentence a verse into the 60-second range with the best of them — half a year to put out a verse, it would actually be a classic work. But these are simply speculations, because they — like most of their peers — would never make a habit of appearing, and then retreating.

The bigger point — and this is where André connects with Frank Ocean beyond their two collaborations — is the discipline, and the confidence, it takes to go at your own pace. One of the stories of the past year has been “Frank, where is our album?” There was also “Where are you, Frank?” and “Has anyone seen Frank?” and “Fuck you, Frank.” What’s under all of this: The consumer, assuming we deserve another Frank Ocean album, now. There’s an invisible egg-timer on production and as someone that makes things for people, you’re never supposed to be late.

When you are late, it’s taken to be disrespectful, and when you disappear, you’re thought to be crazy. Additionally, there’s an idea that a true correlation exists between frequency of output and quality of artist. The fact that you have made songs is often placed on a higher pedestal than whether you have made good songs.

This makes sense, in the beginning. No one wants a fluke. In any industry, it’s helpful to produce, to show consistency, to let people know you can make a good thing and then make another good thing — that your success was not an accident.

But what about after you’ve done that? What about the moment when it’s clear you are different? Why continue to play the game? Again, going back to the beginning with André, do you want your art to become reduced to this?

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I recently discussed this idea of output, of disappearing, and of fandom with Donald Glover, who raps under the name Childish Gambino. He said: “Art, it’s all valueless, unless it has value. That’s what me, what Frank [Ocean], what people are slowly figuring out. People are just going to take and take — it’s why people are beginning to opt out. If things are treated as valuable, I’d rather just give it to people, because it’s all made up. If you’re giving a mud pie to someone and they’re like ‘this is just a bunch of mud’ and then you give it to someone who is like ‘ooh, thank you for this pie,’ play the game with the person who is playing the game with you.”

The Glovers and the Oceans and the Benjamins of the music world make us uneasy. High quality multi-talents with both infrequent outputs and low profiles make us uncomfortable. We love them, but we’re jealous of them, and, possibly, deep down we hate them, because they’re doing what we all want to do: Opt out. The way they’ve decided to live reminds us of how wrong we’re all doing it. When people go against the grain of the system, it’s a reminder that we’re the robots — and the weirdos are the actual humans.

In hip-hop and R&B, the luxury of showing up when you want, doing something, and then disappearing indefinitely — blazing your own path — is not the norm. The only “do what you want” archetype that we’ve seen repeated is the rapper turned mogul — you can finally stop playing everyone’s game once you’re a half-billionaire.

But what André began doing, and the road Frank also seems to be headed down, has nothing to do with moguldom. It’s something else. It’s a risky road that is best described as playing a different game than everyone else, one that can have a high reward. Frank is currently being rewarded — with critical acclaim, with independence. As for André, you can have your personal opinion about his talents, his career, his legacy, but what is clearly factual, judging by the actions of someone like Frank Ocean, is that he’s the prototype.

What André 3000 Taught Frank Ocean