An Introduction to Frank Ocean

WARNING: A sea of bad ocean puns. If you like analysis and bad puns- come, swim good with me. Let’s begin.

There’s a plethora of in-depth analysis and think pieces on Mr. Ocean on the internet. He has this je ne sais quoi about him that just has to be documented. It has to be discussed. It has to be written. Once you have fallen down the rabbit hole and into the Ocean, there’s no swimming back.

My first step into the waters of Frank began with his 2012 performance of ‘Thinkin bout you’ at the VMA’s. Prior to that, I had never heard of him. Who was this stranger in a striped bandana and why was he making me feel some typa way?

He had just come out of the closet and that definitely didn’t sit very well in the testosterone fueled world of hip-hop. T-pain exposed the homophobia of the industry when he blurted that rappers refused to work with Frank Ocean because of his sexuality. I’m sure they regret that decision now. Regardless, Frank stood his ground by performing for millions a love song directed to his first time, and the unrequited love referenced in his coming out letter.

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Again, I didn’t know who he was, but I was intrigued. I had to know and since then, I’ve been swimming in Frank Ocean ever since and never once have I needed to come up for air.

It’s hard to throw him into a genre box. Instinctively, one would say r&b but that’s a limiting injustice. Just because a black man sings does that automatically make him an r&b artist? His style ranges from everything to anthems that border on gospel such as ‘Godspeed’ to Intelligent Dance Music in ‘Device Control’ and Post Britpop in his cover of Coldplay’s ‘Strawberry Swing’.

He’s an expert storyteller, who can paint an entire film in a listener’s mind through lyrics and sonic texture.

And now, we may begin.

i.) Somewhere around 2008 – The Lonny Breaux Collection

Born Christopher Edwin Breaux on October 28th 1987, he grew up in New Orleans. In 2005 he relocated to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina caused irreversible damage to his studio. He got his foot in the music industry by songwriting for artists such as Brandy and Justin Bieber and eventually signing with Def Jam/Island Records in 2009, while under the moniker Lonny Breaux.

They say you have to make a lot of bad art before you make good art. Lonny was Frank’s chrysalis stage.

These songs were leaked and compiled by a comrade devotee from the interweb, a majority of them being reference tracks he wrote for other artists. ‘Acura Integrl’ is pretty much the only song he proudly owned from this compilation, so we can safely say that it is the first song he ever publicly dropped.

The collection comprises of mostly cheesy bubblegum r&b, a-la 2008 Justin Bieber. The Midi-mafia production is synth heavy and, honestly, quite cringeworthy. Tracks like ‘Hardest Thing’ sound like he was writing through writer’s block and ‘I Need Love’ is exceedingly whiny. However, Lonny’s corny r&b made a good rhythmic foundation for Frank. Through the factory presets, you can catch a glimpse of Frank slowly brewing inside Lonny. One can sense his frustrations with L.A, a city that doesn’t give love as easily as it is given.

The least unpalatable track is ‘Dying For Your Love’ featuring James Fauntleroy, and would have easily been a hit of that time, had it received any radio play. In 2011, Chris Brown tweeted what could have been interpreted as a backhanded compliment comparing Frank Ocean to singer/songwriters like James Fauntleroy and Kevin Cossum, which led to a tweef (twitter beef) between the two. Tension built up for a couple of years and this eventually resulted in a physical brawl outside Westlake Studio in Los Angeles.

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It’s understandable. While James Fauntleroy and Kevin Cossum are highly regarded prolific songwriters, they’re not G.O.A.Ts. If you’re gonna compare Frank Ocean to anyone, at least compare him to Drake, not Quentin Miller.

Conflicts aside, it just goes to show you perfection isn’t born, it’s bred.

ii.) 2011 – Nostalgia, ULTRA

Nostalgia, ULTRA is what it look likes when a man makes music for himself for the last time, before the world cast its eyes on him and never looks away.

Frank’s frustrations with his label constantly passing him over led to his decision to self release Nostalgia, ULTRA as a free mixtape. He changed his name from Lonny Breaux to Frank Ocean and started affiliating himself with OFWGKTA (A.K.A Odd future), garnering a bit of traction from their fan base.

“You know that guy Frank who sings in Odd Future?”

“Yeah?”

“He just dropped a mixtape.”

“Nice, let’s check it out.”

He blew up after this.

The production is significantly better, sample driven with 90’s nostalgia cassette stops and faint video game soundtracks in ‘Street Fighter’ and ‘Soul Calibur’. He shed his commercial skin with Lonny Breaux and opted for a more individualistic, personal approach.

In ‘Novacane’, he compares the numbness after heartbreak to the pain-suppressing nature of drugs and the elusiveness of happiness. The song title is a wordplay on the anaesthetic Novocain and the cataclysmic figurative supernova that happens when a star dies. He references Stanley Kubrick’s 1999 film, ‘Eyes Wide Shut’, which Frank also samples from in the track ‘Lovecrimes’, the love crime in question being impregnating his girl in the throes of passion.

The James Fauntleroy outro in ‘American Wedding’ is a string section reminding you that you can do anything that you want. Just believe.

These niggas can’t do nothing that I can’t do
That she can’t do, that he can’t do, that you can’t do, that we can’t do

‘Nature Feels’ is a jiggy explosion that blends ‘nature’ and ‘sex’ into one cohesive theme. He compares himself to a biblical Adam exploring a world unseen.

iii.) 2012 – Channel Orange

Channel Orange is the relaxed, lethargic introspection of a man who has all the time in the world, even though he recorded it in under three weeks. It’s orange because in true synesthete fashion, he recalls the summer he fell in love, when everything was orange.

With pressure from listeners anticipating his second release, Frank gets rid of the elephant in the room by starting the album off with ‘Thinking bout you’. An ode to his first love.

He shows us how the opulence of the 1% in the staccato ‘Super Rich Kids’ and the jazzy cabaret ‘Sweet Life’. Congratulations Frank, you made it.

So why see the world, when you got the beach

‘Super Rich Kids’ is a jagged decadent tale. The song commences with the protagonist starting his day enjoying the view from his roof; carefree and revelling in his inherited wealth. It ends with him at the end of the day, asking, “do they sew wings on tailored suits?” He plunges off the same roof upon the drunken realisation that while money can get you a great many things, it could never buy you happiness. The hook portrays the two major themes: the pleasure of the beginning and the melancholy of the end. Furthermore, Earl Sweatshirt’s verse on the track is a grammy worthy spit to all the latchkey kids who got too big of an allowance and not enough love.

A million one, a million cash
Close my eyes and feel the crash

‘Crack Rock’ and ‘Pilot Jones’ tackles the destructiveness of drug abuse and the havoc it can wreak on loved ones who really do care, but just can’t deal with the addict in their life anymore. It’s drawn from the times Frank spent with his grandfather, a reformed addict himself, who would take Frank to Narcotics Anonymous and AA meetings, where Frank would hear sordid tales of battles against the bottomless pit the is drug addiction.

‘Pyramids’ is 10 minute track about Cleopatra reincarnated. In the second half of the song, after having fallen from grace, Cleopatra finds herself working as a stripper at the Pyramid, in slow bounce R&B format.

Finally, Frank employs Andre 3000 and his bluesy guitar in ‘Pink Matter’ to question existence as we know it, and the utility of a woman.

iv.) 2013 – Unreleased, MISC

A.k.a songs from a tumblr. An unofficial compilation of the singles that Frank put out on his tumblr page.

‘Pyrite’ is the quintessential breakup song, comparing fake love to fake gold, you can always tell the difference. He soberly paints a picture with tropical guitars and beach hues in ‘Voodoo’, a song about the unity and trust required to make a relationship work.

I know pyrite from 24 karat, yeah
Cubic’s from genuine diamond, yeah
A call from the woman who loves you and hello from a friend
I know when it’s real, I know how to tell

 

v.) 2016 – Endless

It had been two and some years of practically radio silence from Frank, when he showed up on his Tumblr teasing an album called Boys Don’t Cry, saying“I got two versions. I got twooo versions…”

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July 2015 was the month. We waited in an excited frenzy. July came, then August, then September, then Christmas, then Easter. Silence. Everyone was losing their shit:  You said July, Frank. You promised. Where are you? Why did you lie to us?

We had lost hope and moved on with the drudgery of our lives until one day in August 2016, a live stream appeared of an empty warehouse. It was him. He was here.

Unfortunately, Endless is in the shadow of Blonde. Either that or it is viewed as a shameless IDM apple plug, a means to the termination of his contract with Def Jam. It flows like one long 45 minute play with one track seamlessly blending into the next. It is highly underrated. It is so much more.

With top notch production and immaculate features from the likes of crooners like Jazmine Sullivan and Sampha. The layered vocals, singing over each other  but not cluttering are a representation of the cacophony that takes place within a  normal person’s mind: different voices saying different things at the same time but somehow in harmony still. It’s airy and reminiscent of James Blake.

He prays that his children get to see him and his love in all their bloom in the gut-wrenching ‘Wither’.

‘Slide on me’ is a syncopated dancehall track with acoustic and deep bass come together as one. There’s a line in it where he says ‘Aki’ and ‘Wallahi’ , whereas ‘Wallahi’ means ‘I swear’ in Arabic and ‘Aki’ means ‘I swear’ in swahili sheng, and I swear my Kenyan self exploded like a firework.

‘In Here Somewhere’ is Jazmine Sullivan driving my feelings down a desert road at dusk.

The outro in ‘Rushes’ is a flooding warmth. The atmosphere instrumentals like ‘Honeybaby: Ambience 002’ dim the lights for you and set the mood.

His vocal capability shines in ‘Rushes To’ and then he  switches up and casually spits macho bars in ‘Higgs/Outro’ as if he did not just gut my heart into a million pieces in the previous song.

 

vi.) 2016 – Blonde

The album formerly known as Boys Don’t Cry. Frank never shies away from tackling weighty topics. From abortion and religion in previous albums, to the ceaseless death of unarmed black men in America in ‘Nikes’. Both Endless and Blonde are highly autobiographical: they chronicle his childhood in New Orleans, his various moves from Texas to New Orleans.

The vaporwave ambition is strong on this one. He built a staircase in Endless, he built a sky in Blonde. Tossing out the synths for guitars.

He switches up the beat in ‘Nights’ from shady undercuts directed towards a resurfaced ex, to gratitude expressed towards an ex whom he owes a lot to. Former lovers you remember fondly and those you remember with the aftertaste of stale cabbage in your mouth. With cruising kicks and snares just to toy with you.

Did you call me from a séance?
You are from my past life
Hope you’re doing well bruh

He brings back 3 stacks on ‘Solo reprise’ who starts the song off with a tribal cry and continues to assert himself at the top of the hip-hop food chain.

‘Seigfried’ feels hazy, like slowly waking up from a dream, drifting in and out of consciousness. It is a romantic and melancholic contemplation of surrender to societal norms and expectations, asking if the fight is really worth it or if he should just throw in the towel. ‘White Ferrari’ is celestial and gentle, about dumb youth and how quickly time flies.

Blonde is unlike anything he’s ever done. It feels limitless, no walls nor boundaries erected. Like an immersive stream of polished consciousness.

Well worth the wait. I forgot why I was even mad in the first place.

 

Bonus: Noteworthy features 

‘She’ & ‘Analog 2’ where him and his buddy Tyler take turns being psychopaths.

He drops the weed in favor of a clear head in ‘Sunday’. The only person Frank has more musical chemistry with than Tyler is Earl. The play off of each other’s energies like a friendly round of ping pong.

The stripped down ‘Frank’s Track’ from Life of Pablo, where he talks of a dystopian future where humans find out that life is indeed precious but by then, it’s too late.

In conclusion, what makes Frank so amazing is how much he refuses the focus to be on him. Don’t look at him, listen to the story- in its words and in its sounds. Pure and simple.

If the story needs him to visually articulate something, he’ll do it for the sake of the story. But the story always comes first. You get this feeling that even he didn’t know where it would go until he put the dot on the last sentence and a picture revealed itself.

You see, the goal of the artist is to get you to see what they see. Of course, this is easier said than done but Frank makes no compromises. He makes sure that what he shows us, what we see, is 100% the way he saw it in his head, the significant bits and the garble jarble. All of it, in its entirety.

Like how he captures both sides of love as a theme. The ‘loving’ and the ‘loveless’. The best of times and the worst of times, but still, it is love and that is what he is showing you.

Or how he can relate love to anything. Drugs and love in ‘Novacane’. Tattoos and love in ‘Blasted’. Religion and love. Cars and love (saying he’s really into cars is an understatement. You know this) I’m sure he could pick the gnarliest topic like a colonoscopy and still find a way to relate it to how love is a pain in the ass.

Every detail is deliberately and meticulously executed. Even in the parts with no lyrics, no instruments, he sets the ambiance just by waking up and scratching his balls like at the end of ‘Strawberry swing.’ Walking home in the rain and setting down his keys. Making love in the back seat of a car. All these sounds emphasize the significance of ambiance to a story, to a picture, to a film, to a song.

Moral of the story: Mom is right. Be yourself. Be secure with yourself. Rely and trust upon your own decisions. Own your own beliefs. Be yourself and know that that’s good enough.

 

Images:  http://frankocean.tumblr.com; The Daily Dot

Lyrics: Genius

              

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