Can Frank Ocean and his meticulous songwriting revive a flagging genre?
When he was nine, Frank Ocean’s godfather subscribed him to Robb Report, a magazine for the ultra-rich. Less interested in fiduciary smarts, it’s a catalog of conspicuous consumption, highlighting tropical vacations, invaluable antiques and, as Ocean came to know, really expensive cars. Though he comes from a middle class family, he obsessively read the magazine’s classified ads, fixating on exorbitantly priced used Bentleys and Maybachs. “I would just fall in love with all their cars. That was the start.” Ocean, who was born Christopher Breaux (and goes by Lonny to friends), downscaled his material desires, and when he was 13, began going door-to-door, detailing cars for cash. “I would bring all my supplies. Literally, it was like a movie, I had a wagon, those long red wagons, like a Radio Flyer-type wagon, and I used to buy my own soaps.” Simonizing cars wasn’t just a means of glimpsing the unobtainable. He had been bit by the singing bug and wanted to make money to purchase studio time to record covers of songs by groups like Jagged Edge with an aspiring rapper friend. But not just to fulfill a nascent creative desire—he needed practice if he was going to get rich. “I knew the only way I could make it a livelihood and make a living off of it was because I was great at it,” Ocean says. “I didn’t want it to be my hobby, I wanted it to be my career.”
Now 23, Ocean came to LA from New Orleans five years ago, after dropping out of college. The drive, which he made with his then girlfriend, took just two days; they stopped overnight in El Paso. Ocean intended to stay six months; he’s been there five years. To pay the bills, he held a series of dull jobs, in a cell phone store and in the insurance business. Slowly, though, he began carving a place for himself in the music industry, writing lyrics for people like Justin Bieber and John Legend, fulfilling one half of his boyhood fantasy: making decent money. “The writing, for me, is the easiest part—I was looking for another word besides easy—but that’s the part that’s the most natural to me. I never felt like I had a crazy, natural talent for singing,” Ocean explains. He got so good at creating these worlds for other people that he’d nearly stopped seeing a place for himself. “There’s a point, I’ll be honest, when I put a lot of my artist ambitions on a shelf somewhere,” Ocean says. “I had a couple of writers I really respected talk about how much of a calmer existence it was not to be an artist and be in the forefront and be that guy. I think I started buying it a little bit. I started drinking the Kool-Aid.” Eventually, though, his impulses kicked in and, last fall, with or without label support, Ocean began to conceive and record his debut album, Nostalgia, Ultra. Conjointly, he also invented a new persona, disassociating himself from the songwriter Lonny Breaux, to become Frank Ocean—an alias cobbled out of various tributes to Frank Sinatra, Ocean’s 11 (the original) and a pimp-like character he created to razz a friend at a party. In at least one interview, he even claimed to be Billy Ocean’s son.
Ocean lives in Beverly Hills now, and standing in the outdoor lobby of the SLS Hotel, a quick drive from his apartment, he’s very California cool. He’s tall and handsome with good skin and a broad face, looking unassailably crisp in a white T-shirt and black jeans. Standing next to his manager Kelly Clancy, an LA gym-thin woman in a silk shirt, loud neon short-shorts and beige platform heels, he might as well be a finger-snapping extra in West Side Story. He’s also got a million dollar smile, though you wouldn’t guess it at first. Ocean keeps his eyes narrow and his lips parted; he often appears suspicious or as if he’s about to sneeze.
Inside, at the SLS’ The Bazaar restaurant, Clancy and Ocean sit together on a leather bench and speak in jags, eyeballing the menu and shooing the waiter. Clancy is deep in her Blackberry. When she finally comes up for air, she prattles on about Ocean in the third person, explaining how they are both Scorpios, and while the traits of the sign seem true to her general nature, Ocean’s disposition is less predictable. It’s a strange rant that eventually meanders into an aside with her, possibly accidentally, explaining that she is generally on eggshells with Ocean. He endures the monologue, cool as a cucumber, sitting with terrific posture and his hands politely in his lap. He orders an Arnold Palmer and downs it.
In the four months since Ocean released Nostalgia, Ultra, he’s seen his star rise tremendously, despite the fact that the album was released only as a free, grey area download. This is as much attributable to Ocean’s skill as it is his affiliation with the high-profile LA rap collective, Odd Future. “I met them at a function my homie John-O was throwing in the valley,” he says. “Each of us are pretty autonomous, but we all benefit from being associated with one another.” At the time he released Nostalgia, Odd Future’s Tyler, the Creator, was at the peak of his (internet) saturation. With a nod from Tyler to his 300,000 Twitter followers to download Ocean’s songs, an easy frenzy ensued. Nostalgia hit so hard because no one knew to expect it. The low profile is mostly due to the fact it was released outside the bounds of his official deal with Island/Def Jam, which he’d signed a few years ago via Tricky Stewart, an occasional A&R and prolific, well-respected producer from Atlanta, who he got to know while working as a songwriter. Despite I/DJ’s initial lack of support, Ocean says any negative feelings, if they existed, were all in the past. “We’re good now.” The label plans to reissue the release with bonus tracks (minus the songs whose samples could not be cleared) and Ocean is working on a new album, as well.
Regardless of whether or not the listening public was paying attention, the personhood Ocean perfected on Nostalgia has popped up across the R&B landscape the past two or three years with songs he’s written for hire. As a solo artist, Ocean has a coherent narrative as a naïve and funny adventure seeker, and that wide-eyed lust for life is just as apparent on his songs for others. On “1st and Love,” which he wrote for Brandy in 2008, Ocean exhibits his typical boyish wonder at grownup romance, puppy love always trumping adult complexity. Like our names carved into a tree/ They’re memories inside of me/ Don’t know how long forever is/ But if you stay with me you’ll find out with me. “I call them childish moments in my life, all that love shit in the trees and shit,” Ocean says. “That’s something so sincere and endearing about writing. I enjoy writing like that sometimes. I enjoy photography in a record.” But Ocean composes songs more like a director than a photographer—there are moving parts and characters, details and back-stories. In addition to the sweet carved-heart narrative of “1st and Love,” there are also references to Brandy’s brother Ray J, and love hitting first like a moving truck, and then like an enema. “Creative writing coupled with what music is, just within itself, the instrumentation, the melody without any words, just humming, the emotions, the notes by themselves and together can emote, coupled with my knack for writing, there’s a power in that,” Ocean says. “There’s a power to really getting all of that shit out.” His quirky lyricism soon led to a small number of guest features as a singer, like on Brandy’s excellent “Surprise Ending,” where he sings of being on the edge of his seat, What’s the surprise?/ What’s the surprise?/ What’s the surprise? The surprise is she breaks up with him.
R&B is widely considered to music what the romance novel is to literature, and, at least to his manager, who warns sternly that Ocean is not an R&B artist, R&B is a dirty word. (On the genre, Ocean offers only a riddle: “If I said you were a dove but you were a swan would that be accurate?”) But Nostalgia is unapologetically an R&B album, and a fantastic one, at that. To Ocean’s credit, his brand of R&B resembles its hippie strains in the ’60s, more Bo Diddley strutting with a square guitar or Shuggie Otis singing “Strawberry Letter 23” with his giant afro swinging in the breeze than today’s major stars like Ne-Yo or Trey Songz—accomplished singers, sure, but often generic and occasionally corny. In terms of his music’s blustering swagger, and befitting his membership in Odd Future, Ocean’s closest peers are rappers.
On Nostalgia, Ocean is nimble, all things to all people, sometimes sultry, sometimes goofy. (Even when he graduates to adult moments, he’s still playful, like on the MGMT-sampling “Nature Feels,” which opens with the line I’ve been meaning to fuck you in the garden.) Instead of sinking to R&B’s usual gushy tropes, he sings simultaneously about and for women. On the very literal “Songs for Women,” he is charmingly self-effacing and punning, singing of how even his girl isn’t taken with his skills: She don’t even listen to the songs I record/ But she be banging Drake in my car/ I’m so far gone, she stay blasting Trey and his songs all day long/ It’s like she never heard of me. Like anyone with esteem issues, Ocean cuts himself down before someone else can. At least he’s funny. The next song features a clip of Nicole Kidman railing against her husband in Eyes Wide Shut. It’s fitting that, in a movie featuring a teen prostitute and a lavish masked orgy, Ocean finds the single moment where she sounds suspiciously like Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally.
But Ocean is more an R&B Woody Allen than Stanley Kubrick (or Rob Reiner, for that matter). Much of what sets his work apart is focus on character development and detail, often making his characters neurotic or helpless. “I’m really trying to create this environment around the song that makes the listener feel like they’re in this place and they’re hearing the story and not only are they hearing it, they’re really seeing it,” he says. While many popular ballads contain a generic “you” or “she,” Ocean writes fleshy beings with specific tastes and strong opinions. When he sings on “Novacane” that he met her at Coachella/ She went to see Jigga, I went to see Z-Trip, perfect/ I took a seat on an ice cold lawn, she handed me an ice blue bong, whatever, it’s more like he’s setting a scene for a California desert slacker film than writing a love song. And maybe he is. Fuck me good, fuck me long, fuck me numb./ Love me now, when I’m gone, love me none he sings despondently on the chorus. But instead of taking a routine turn and ending up a player, he finishes the song on a note lamenting loneliness: I can’t feel a thing/ I can’t feel her/ Novacane for the pain. Ultimately, it’s him who suffers and who receives the harshest treatment.
In plain conversation, Ocean talks like this too, dolloping sentences with takedowns like, “This might sound stupid” and “Sorry for rambling.” He’s a strange mixture of blunt and demure, and only speaks confidently about writing, something with which he has a tried and true history. Even then, he takes pains to avoid sounding smug. It may be a nitpicking perfectionism and not low self-esteem that prevents him from acknowledging his talents, but it still seems strange coming from an artist accruing accolades so quickly. Ocean has received numerous impressive radio plays with no promotion or media presence, and has since written with Kanye West, Jay-Z and Beyonce. He’s also dealt with requisite star Twitter beef, which bizarrely extended into real life. Chris Brown’s defensibly benign and complimentary tweet, “I fuck with Frank Ocean. Reminds me of a young James Fauntleroy or Kevin Cossom” was read by Ocean as a backhanded compliment (neither of those singers have found a mainstream toehold) and he retaliated by comparing Brown to Ike Turner, another R&B star who battered his more famous partner. This spurred a wild back-and-forth between Brown and Tyler, the Creator, which careened off the internet when Brown’s cousins videotaped themselves driving beside Ocean, heckling him. Ocean, who says not much more than “I don’t know you” on the tape, comes off much better than his tormentors. The beef, he says, is now “dead.” Shortly after, he tweeted that it was time to put a “freeze” on social networking. (He did stop by Twitter on July 4th to celebrate the joys of cold cereal as a late night snack.)
Back at the restaurant, Ocean orders soup he doesn’t like and doesn’t eat, followed by a plate of cookies. They’re very tiny and very expensive and Ocean, offended by their opulence, sends them back. We pack it in, pick up his cousin Chito and producer and satellite member of Odd Future, Michael Uzowuru, and drive to Yogurtland, where he eats dessert standing on a railing in the parking lot. It’s a crisp LA night after a hot day, and the lingering entourage feels so endless summer its almost cliché. There’s a CrossFit gym next to the yogurt place, and Ocean and his crew muse about the logistics of that workout. They’re interrupted when a man talking on his phone haphazardly parks his car, scraping the bumper against the concrete divider. Everyone laughs at the driver and it’s so good natured and infectious, the driver laughs too. Still hungry after frozen yogurt, Ocean initiates a late night pilgrimage to Fat Burger. When food comes, a communal table is convened and Ocean makes his fries open season. He’s a few bites in before he notices a man in a cheap looking get up, jeans and a potentially fake Louis Vuitton hat, and launches into an extended metaphor: “Why wouldn’t you think about what you have on? You could not, if that’s your style, if that’s your individual expression to be carefree and not give a fuck, there’s still thought behind it. Whether it be a little or a lot, there’s still thought. Everybody’s thinking. You know, hat, shoes, button-down, the one-cuff… He thought about it. I can’t say that it’s bad taste. It’s his taste. Would I wear that shit? Fuck no. But he feels good in his Damier trucker hat. Yeah, he feels good in that, so he should swag it out.” To Ocean, perfectionism has little to do with outside standards, only an allegiance to yourself. In a world of test markets and Google analytics, he simply wants to create songs that are the tangible version of his imagination. He lucked out that what’s in his brain is what everyone else wants to hear, too.
It’s about midnight when he finally finishes eating, and Ocean and his crew head again to the parking lot. Instead of piling into his manager’s car, though, they linger and eventually decide to have a quick footrace across the empty blacktop. Ocean wins the first race, then the second and then the third. Though it’s nothing serious, he’s clearly happy to have won and shows off his smile. It’s only then that he appears winded.
The next day, browsing for kitchen stools and a couch in a giant furniture warehouse on Venice Boulevard, Ocean seems distracted, giving some credence to his manager’s account that he can be a difficult read. He’s got an appointment in the afternoon and tickets to see Rihanna in the evening, before he travels tomorrow to Big Sur to film the video for Nostalgia, Ultra’s standout “Swim Good.” There’s been a debate about whether the Town Car limousine he’ll drive in the video should be orange or cantaloupe. (He chooses cantaloupe.) Then there’s the matter of his custom-made costume, not to mention the fact that no one has figured out how he’s getting 250 miles north less than 24 hours from now. But he tries to see the bright side. “All this shit lately is kind of therapeutic. Being an artist is not just the music. That’s the nucleus of everything, that’s the shit that everything’s revolving around, and why everything’s revolving to begin with, you know and spinning and shit.” Then he trails off. “And it’s cool to do all of it, you know, videos, photography, putting together artwork, blah blah blah.” Later, he asks if he gives a good interview. Wandering, his mind mostly elsewhere, Ocean doesn’t find anything he likes furniture-wise, and leaves empty-handed. In the parking lot, I ask him why he doesn’t have a Mercedes E3 M30, the vintage car pictured on the cover of Nostalgia, Ultra. He says it’s impractical for driving around in the LA grind. He wouldn’t want to waste such a nice car on a workaday lifestyle. Before he heads off, he launches into an educational talk about why it’s better to buy a used car in California than the rest of the country, where the humidity and precipitation exponentially increase the chance of rust. In California, he says, it never rains. Then he gets in his car, which is easily recognizable as the silver Benz from the Chris Brown chase video and, for the second time in two days, heads to the dentist.