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.