What motivation could be so powerful as to prompt noted perfectionist Frank Ocean to release not one, but two projects in the span of a weekend? The answer may well be less noble than you think. It has yet to be formally confirmed, but reports have emerged that Ocean used Endless, his visual album, as a means to round out his Def Jam contract so he could release its follow up, Blonde, independently. The move may seem surprising given that Def Jam appeared to be fairly hands off with Ocean in the time following Channel Orange, but this is actually a time-honored tradition and occurs for a variety of reasons.
Whether seeking additional creative freedom, a fairer financial arrangement or other extenuating circumstances, there is a rich history of artists releasing records for ulterior motives, some of which were uninspired duds, some of which proved to be quite memorable. Many musical greats, including Prince and Marvin Gaye, have a contractual obligation album on their resumes, while contemporary stars like Drake and Selena Gomez have put out projects under murky circumstances. Even the Rolling Stones aren’t immune (1966’s Got Live If You Want It!).
Many consider Gaye’s 1978 LP the gold standard for contractual obligation albums, even if the contract that required it was not written by an unscrupulous label but as part of a divorce settlement with this one-time wife Anna Ruby Gordy. Gaye was in a precarious financial state at the time, and didn’t have the cash to pay Gordy outright, so a deal was arranged for her to receive the payment out of his next album’s royalties and advance. That Here, My Dear, is a meditation on divorce is hardly a coincidence (the album opener begins with Gaye saying “I guess I’ll have to say this album is dedicated to you”). The other song titles are equally unsubtle, including “When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You”, “You Can Leave, But It’s Going to Cost You”, and “Anna’s Song”.
Despite the bitterness associated with the album, this wasn’t like Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood declaring war against “Creep” with its brutal guitar on the hook. Here, My Dear, like Gaye’s best music, is contemplative, pretty, and intricate. Sure, a finger is pointed at Gordy (“Pretty birds fly away, I had to leave you for my health’s sake”, “If you ever loved me will all of your heart / You’d never take a million dollars to part”), but another is pointed at Gaye himself (“You try your best, you say I gave you no rest”).
In retrospect, Here, My Dear has been held up as an underrated opus in his catalog, a project whose unique origin story allowed Gaye not to hold anything back and make an album that is deeply personal and proudly non-commercial. In the end, it took on far more meaning to Gaye than just a way out of a sticky situation.
“But the more I lived with the notion of doing an album for Anna, the more it fascinated me. Besides, I owed the public my best effort. Finally, I did the record out of deep passion. It became a compulsion,” Gaye told biographer David Ritz.
Prince’s tangle with the contractual obligation album yielded something far less compelling. He released the aptly named Chaos and Disorder in 1996, but his prolonged relationship with Warner Bros. Records was nearly as contentious as Gaye’s and Gordy’s. It didn’t stop him from releasing some all-time classics on the label (1999, Purple Rain, Sign o’ the Times), but it took him until 2015 to finally strike out in a new direction, releasing Hit N Run Phase One through his own NPG and Universal.
Chaos and Disorder is apparently out of print and is certainly one of Prince’s minor projects. The only track non-diehards may know is “Dinner with Dolores”, which feels like Prince’s jokey take on syrupy lite FM rock, but manages to still be enjoyable, albeit with a pretty knowing wink.
More recent examples include the Strokes’ 2013 Comedown Machine, which was actually stronger than some of their previous records (Angles sounds more creatively spent). Still, the band promptly fled RCA for frontman Julian Casablancas’ self-started Cult Records and released a well-received EP earlier this year.
Selena Gomez used her hits compilation For You to put the kibosh on her Hollywood Records contract and moved on to Interscope, where she experimented with darker edgier sounds, collaborated with the likes of Hit-Boy and A$AP Rocky, and scored a number of hits off the fittingly titled Revival.
Drake’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late came as a tremendous surprise for fans, and was immediately suspected of being a savvy move to speed up the timeline on his deal with Cash Money, a label not know for its sterling artist relationships.
The Drake project, with its streamlined feature list, largely in-house production, and lack of pop radio fare, certainly had the trappings of a mixtape rather than an album. It featured sharp lyrics by Drake, some of which could be read as veiled shots at Cash Money (“Envelopes comin’ in the mail, let her open ‘em / Hopin’ for a check again, ain’t no tellin’”), and some of which were… not veiled (“Brand new Beretta, can’t wait to let it go / Walk up in my label like, where the check though?”)
His 2016 album Views was released through Cash Money to tremendous chart success and mediocre critical response, but his long-term future with the label still seems murky, especially since his October’s Very Own is on a subsidiary deal with Warner Bros., not Cash Money itself.
Getting back to Frank Ocean, Endless certainly isn’t of the dashed-off variety, but it does have a few tells of an album made to round out an undesired contract. Ocean isn’t the kind of artist who feasts on singles, but this record is far less commercial than Blonde, which has tracks like “Solo” and “Nikes” that seem capable of racking up huge stream totals, if not Billboard success. Endless as a whole is far more amorphous and ambient, the songs flow into one another and are book ended by spoken interludes and Rorschach blot synths. In fact, there’s an anti-commercialism bent with much of Endless, most notably its opener, “Device Control”. The song also closes the video, and features lyrics that sound cribbed from the world’s worst sponsored content writer (“With this Sony Telephone 4K video is in your palm / It is in your palm, in your palm / In your hand, in your hand”).
Frankly, the fact that Endless has only been released as a video is surprising. Beyonce’s Lemonade was put out as an individually tracked album soon after its HBO debut, and it’s hard to believe that Def Jam won’t try to do the same here, particularly given that it may be their last chance to squeeze a few bucks out of Ocean. Reports have already surfaced that Def Jam and Universal were less than thrilled after shelling out roughly $2 million during the recording process. If nothing else, Ocean’s calculated decision spurred Universal chairman Lucian Grainge to announce that the label isn’t going to put together streaming exclusives (previous link).
In the modern music landscape it is easier than ever for artist’s to release their music directly to fans, meaning that labels have far less leverage than they did even a decade ago. This is a positive development for artists and fans alike, and could render the contractual obligation album a relic of the past soon enough. For now though, we’re still seeing artists forced to play the label game until they have the opportunity to make a clean break. For some, that can be creatively stifling, but for others, like Frank Ocean, it can lead to one of the most surreal and unique musical projects in recent memory, and even serve as a bit of revenge.