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Frank Ocean Takes an Unusual Journey to No. 1 With ‘Blonde’

The album, which was released independent of a record label but with the support of Apple, debuted at the top of the Billboard 200.
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Frank Ocean’s latest album knocked the “Suicide Squad” soundtrack from the top spot. Credit John Shearer/Invision, via Associated Press

Frank Ocean kept his fans waiting four years for a new album, and when he finally released “Blonde” on Aug. 20, they sent it to straight to No. 1 on the Billboard chart with 232,000 sales and more than 65 million streams in the United States, according to Nielsen.

That “Blonde” was a big hit out of the gate was no surprise. But the music industry was still stunned by the unusual way it was released. Although Mr. Ocean had been signed to Def Jam Recordings, “Blonde” was released independently, through an exclusive deal with Apple. Mr. Ocean, it seemed, had fulfilled his contractual obligation to Def Jam by putting out a longform video, “Endless,” just one day before — leaving himself a free agent. (“Endless” doesn’t appear on a Billboard chart because it is not for sale and its tracks are not available to stream individually.)

Even with artists more empowered than ever before by digital technology, it is extremely rare for a self-released album to reach No. 1. That is mostly because the standard tools of promotion that are necessary to reach that peak — radio, advertising, a splashy P.R. campaign — remain the expertise of the big record labels.

It is so rare, in fact, that there may be no exact precedent for what Mr. Ocean accomplished. Plenty of independent albums have reached No. 1 over the years, but usually with the help of a big distribution company. In the case of “Blonde,” however, the pent-up demand for a new Frank Ocean album, and the involvement of Apple as a global distribution platform, guaranteed that “Blonde” could immediately reach a huge audience without a record company.

Could the stunt be repeated? The music industry is hotly debating that question, but in the meantime Mr. Ocean has a No. 1 album, and is enjoying all the spoils from it.

Also this week, Drake’s “Views” (Young Money/Cash Money/Republic) — another Apple exclusive, and the biggest hit of the year so far — holds at No. 2, and the “Suicide Squad” soundtrack (Atlantic) falls to No. 3 after two weeks in the top spot.

Two new albums follow on the chart. “I Told You” (Mad Love/Interscope) by the Canadian rapper Tory Lanez is No. 4, and the pop-electronic violinist Lindsey Stirling reached No. 5 with “Brave Enough,” which, like Mr. Ocean’s “Blonde,” was self-released, coming out on her own Lindseystomp label.

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