by Matthew Trammell
Luckily, Frank Ocean’s throat is feeling better. It’s a few days after his aborted New York City debut, and his voice arrives full and deep over the phone, with no sign of the sore tonsils that devastated a line of ticket-holders that frigid Sunday night. After announcing that his show was canceled, he posted on his Tumblr page: “im really sorry yall. i’ll be back soon as i’m healthy. thats my word.”
It’s a word fans have learned to cherish, for Frank Ocean is a man of few of them. When he posted his debut album, Nostalgia, Ultra, for free download in February 2011, he offered just a pun on his blog: “[frank]: my arms are tired. [gurl]: drop your album.” The link was given a viral boost when his Odd Future–affiliate Tyler, the Creator re-posted it at the peak of his own Internet hype: “Smooth Ass Music About Bitches, Relationships And Being A Rich Young Nigga…But In A Swagged Out Way,” he wrote of the project. Up until then, members of Odd Future, the L.A. collective of rappers, producers, skaters, and vandals, were most known for their vitriol-drenched rhymes and edgy, gory music videos—they were also critical darlings, and any output from the crew was met with feverish attention amongst press, artists, and fans alike. After being ignored by his label Def Jam for almost two years (the A&R that signed him in 2009 quit soon after, a common industry hiccup that leaves artists in limbo), it seemed that a few tastemaker tweets was all he’d needed: Frank Ocean went from a bookmarked link to a critically acclaimed, genre-smashing phenomenon in as quickly as it took the twenty-three-year-old to hit “publish.” The label quickly released a couple singles on iTunes and scrambled to package a commercial release of the album, but sample issues and runaway hype ultimately bested a corporate co-opting of his brand. The official release of Nostalgia, Ultra has been scrapped in favor of a new, upcoming release.
Ocean’s lips stayed tight as praise and adoration flew his way from all corners of the music universe: Nostalgia’s witty, dense songwriting, eclectic production, and cohesive personality exhilarated what had been a largely dormant R&B landscape. He interpolated the Eagles, Coldplay, MGMT. He sang about swing-sets, gay marriage, Coachella, heartbreak, sports cars, ambition, Islam, his father. He’d come up as a songwriter, penning deep album cuts for Brandy, John Legend, and Justin Bieber. He was older than the rest of the teenaged Odd Future hooligans, and hailed from Louisiana as opposed to L.A. Today, Ocean has established himself as one of music’s hottest commodities, penning songs for Beyoncé and landing two features on Jay-Z and Kanye West’s mammoth Watch the Throne. But much about the young artist remained a mystery—so when he literally vanished moments before he was set to hit the Bowery Ballroom stage, it felt at once calculated and vindicating: buy tickets, stand on line, and see a show? Frank Ocean would never make it that easy.
A few questions have been answered since he arrived, but Ocean remains one of the most elusive emerging artists in recent memory. During our two-hour conversation, he opens up for the first time ever about growing up in New Orleans, his formative years as an artist, the recording and promoting of his first album, and the complex personal life that has inspired such a remarkable career.
Can you paint a general portrait of what it was like growing up in New Orleans? The culture and music of the city are renowned across the nation. What are some of your earliest memories?
Shit… I remember the first flood I ever experienced. I was little, maybe like six. It flooded probably two inches underneath the threshold of our door, so it didn’t get in the house. All the houses in New Orleans are raised off the ground because of floods and shit. So it was like three feet of water. My cousins and I stacked up milk crates and were using it as a diving board into the floodwaters. We were doing that all day until one of my neighbors came out there on a little swamp-style boat, and grabbed a water moccasin out of the water and cut its head off against the fence. That was the last time I swam in any floodwaters. I think that was my earliest memory of something that was really a part of New Orleans culture. I consider hurricanes to be a part of New Orleans culture in a weird way.
You were in New Orleans for Hurricane Katrina. Did you and your family lose a lot when it hit?
Nah. I was in college, and my dorm was fifteen stories, so I was up towards the top, but the whole bottom levels were molded up, so I couldn’t go in my dorm for months. My mom had just built a home on the West Bank, which is on the west side of the Mississippi River. That side of the town didn’t get as much water as the Ninth Ward and the neighborhoods that I grew up in, by the Seventh Ward. Just to put it in perspective: the house I grew up in got eight feet of water, and the house we moved into got a little bit of roof damage. We made it out all right.
We haven’t had many contemporary artists who’ve grown up in New Orleans and brought those experiences directly into their music. Lil Wayne has touched on it a bit before, but not many others. Do you feel that experiencing Katrina has informed your creativity since then?
I can’t credit it with too much. I can credit it with being the reason I moved to L.A. Ultimately, the reason I’m successful might be attributed to Katrina. I don’t think I would’ve moved if it hadn’t been for that storm, and I don’t think I’d have been successful if I stayed in New Orleans.
You’ve known that you wanted to be a recording artist since you were about twelve years old. What was your musical context when you decided you wanted to be a part of the music industry?
At twelve, thirteen, I was obsessed with the Billboard charts. I had a friend who I grew up with, my homie Chico; he and I would really look at those charts all the time and predict what songs would move up and how many positions. I would listen to those songs more for sport, and I would listen to stuff my mom played in the car. She would always listen to Toni Braxton. Then it was Phyllis Hyman and fuckin’ Celine Dion, who I loved, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Anita Baker—a bunch of females. Sometimes, she would weird out and listen to the Phantom of the Opera soundtrack, seriously.
By the time I started buying records on my own, I had signed up for the BMG CD catalog. The first record I ever bought was The Marshall Mathers LP, which kind of peels your wig back at that age, like, “Whoa, what the fuck is this?” That really inspired my interest in hip-hop and rap music. I was always a little picky when it came to rappers, because I started with Em. He’s so fucking good that you kind of develop a little bit of snobbery as a teenager about the rappers you listen to.
That seems really common in our generation of music lovers. Eminem was the first artist that really exhilarated us.
Right, right. That was the first real album I ever listened to with that kind of content. It definitely fucked me up. Also, being a singer, and around that time starting to really believe in myself as a singer-songwriter, I had a thing for voices. I started getting into more of the guys that were singing: Donny Hathaway, Sam Cooke, a little bit of Stevie, and definitely got into Prince. I used to listen to Michael Bolton’s greatest hits and cover albums. I’d listen to any voice that I was drawn to. I’d listen to it as close as I could.
Prince is very evident in your music, as is Stevie. Would you consider some of those voices ones that you aspire to or try to emulate?
Trying to get as many colors out of your voice is something I learned from the singers I mentioned, like Donny, for example. Just how it goes from being so rich to so broken. Prince can almost give you any color. He was so fearless with his expression. He could be effeminate, like when he did that female persona, Camille. I used to love to listen to Mariah or Celine, where they’d go to the top of their range and the tone would disappear. I don’t know how to describe it, but I’ve asked mix engineers, and they call it “the sparkle”—it’ll sparkle at the top.
Right, it almost ceases to be a voice with tone, and it’s just a pitch that’s as sharp as a thin piece of string.
Exactly, exactly. Even to this day, it’s voice I prefer over any instrument. Voice, and then guitar, because it sounds like a voice to me.
It’s not very common for a thirteen-year-old to know they want to be a songwriter instead of a performer. What drew you to songwriting as opposed to just trying to be a singer initially?
My skill for writing preexisted my skills in music. I knew that I enjoyed writing before I knew that I enjoyed singing and performing music. As a kid, if my mom and I got into it, we would write each other letters. I’m talking about a six-, seven-, eight-year-old writing letters to his mom about why he thinks his punishment is unjust, or why he doesn’t want to go to school in the morning, or why she has to go to work in the morning and come home so late. I didn’t get to creative writing until I was a little bit older. I wrote three fully bound little books—I think my mom still has them at home. When you’re a kid, you don’t have an idea of structure, you’re just writing whenever you want to write. The only reason I wrote those books is because I was in a gifted class in elementary, and I overextended myself and wrote more than I had to for some projects.
What were some of your first records about? Do you remember any of your earliest songs?
I remember my first rhyme. The first song I wrote was probably a rap. I was young, all right? I’ll put the disclaimer on it. I was nine. My rhyme was: “I went to the park, it was so dark / A nigga tried to rob me with a spoon and a fork / He put the spoon to my head, a gun to my leg / the nigga didn’t know I had a razor blade / He took all my money, and all my jewelry / I said, ‘Look, fake nigga, I’m tired of you…’” and I don’t remember the rest. [laughs] That was my first rhyme.
Was that drawn from a real-life experience?
Nah, hell nah. I was just trying to be cool.
I’m not going to lie to you. That may be the first one, but we still get that Frank Ocean imagery. I saw the park. The traces of it were there.
[laughs] Yeah, man, you know, it was a diamond in the rough, I guess.
You got your first placement and really started getting serious with the Midi Mafia, right?
I got my first placement with an old friend, one of my first friends in the music business when I moved to L.A., this producer named Bryan Kennedy. I was at his home studio in Burbank, and we were just hanging out, writing and shit. An artist from Epic named Noel Gourdin came by the studio, and we wrote a song called “I Fell,” and it wound up being on his album [After My Time]. After that, I wrote a song with Bryan Kennedy at the Record Plant in L.A. at some sort of writing camp. It was a song called “Locket.” The A&R for Brandy’s album heard it and loved it. She called a meeting and asked if me, Bryan Kennedy, and a couple other writers could just write her whole album. They put me on this $2,500-a-month retainer to come to the studio and write songs for Brandy’s album. So we were working out of Paramount and a few other studios. This was about eight to ten months before the Human album dropped. That was my first time really being with an artist, where the artist was in the studio, and we were working closely. I developed a relationship with Brandy. It was through her that I met Midi Mafia.
Towards the end of that, the A&R really fucked all of us over. We’d been working for months and really doing incredible shit, and she fucked us over and did a song deal with Rodney Jerkins. He basically—and I don’t mind saying this—he basically just listened to the songs that we were doing and attempted to recreate that sound, and made the album. The A&R told me that one of my songs, “1st & Love,” was on it, and none of the other ones were making it. It was my first real disappointment in the music business, kind of a right of passage, I guess.
When you started recording Nostalgia, Ultra, you were signed to Def Jam but didn’t have much label support. What was that recording process like? Who were some of the first people you reached out to?
For one, I knew I had to secure a studio. That was one of the most daunting tasks, apart from getting beats and shit. I had to find an engineer to record me and track me, because I’m not that awesome at Pro Tools. For beats, I reached out to, obviously, Hit-Boy, I reached out to Tricky [Stewart], Midi Mafia, Chase N. Cashe. I reached out to Brandy for backgrounds. I wanted it to have a cohesive sound, so I tried to pick beats that went well together. I busted my ass trying to get the sequence to ride a certain sort of way. I picked samples partly based on what I liked and partly on what was available. I lucked up with the Eagles fully hi-fi instrumental; I didn’t think I was even going to find that. The studio I was at didn’t have the vocal chain that I wanted, so I was renting shit just to give it a sound. I wanted it to sound like the shit in stores; I didn’t want it to sound like a mixtape. It wasn’t a mixtape to me; it was an album just as much as any other release was—it just wasn’t in the major-label system. So I treated it like that, I A&R’d it like that, I recorded it and mixed it like that. I spent time and money on the mixes. I didn’t have a lot of money to be spending racks on mixing it. So it was definitely a labor of love and a passion. It just had to get done, as far as I was concerned. It was the only way that I could be heard in the way that I wanted to be heard.
Did you anticipate the overwhelming critical reception it got? Did you feel the potency of the material when you were recording it?
I felt that the body of work was strong. I felt that it was the best work I had done so far. And I felt that it displayed my talents accurately. But I was still so shocked. Famous people that I didn’t really know were telling me how awesome it was. You’re still in a haze of disbelief for a little while before it settles in, like, “Wow, this is really happening. People are really fucking with this thing, and this thing is you.” It’s not contrived.
To be honest with you, I thought I’d have to throw some block parties in East L.A. and play the shit at parties and shit and get people hyped on it. I was thinking of marketing ploys, tasteful marketing ploys, to even attract attention to it. I wasn’t thinking I could just put it on my Tumblr and put my hands in the air…
[laughs] And just have the rest be history. You’ve shot videos for “Novacane” and “Swim Good.” Did you know those would be breakout singles?
I didn’t want “Novacane” or “Swim Good” to be the single. I don’t like that term. Maybe because I don’t like the radio, and I don’t think anybody else does. It’s like a conveyor belt with little soul. When I think of single, I automatically picture putting something that I’ve put everything into on some conveyor belt. It becomes way more about science, about feelings and shit. Apart from that, if I had to take a single off of there and had to use that conveyor belt for one of my shits, I would have probably went with… I don’t know. That’s a good question.
What does it then say to you that a song as dark and arcane as “Novacane” is a breakout track that people flocked to? Does that change your thinking at all?
No, it doesn’t, because “Novacane” wasn’t a successful pop song. I knew that it wouldn’t be a successful pop song. It was successful in pop culture, but it wasn’t successful on Billboard Hot 100. It wasn’t built for that. There was no way I could see that record being number one. In my spirit, I always knew that it wasn’t that record. I’m actually glad that it wasn’t, because it’s true to form. It’s an important song for my career, for sure. “Novacane” pulled people down the wormhole hopefully into my space of music, and I think there’s a lot more there. And there might be some shit for the Billboard Hot 100 in my catalog somewhere.
The material you contributed to Watch the Throne was very politically and socially aware. Would you say “Made in America” is an accurate portrayal of some of the social and political beliefs that you hold?
Yeah. I don’t think of myself like a super political guy. I don’t think there’s that much commentary on “Made in America.” When I was writing that song, I was trying to be humorous—most people don’t get my sense of humor. It was like, “Sweet King Martin, sweet Queen Coretta,” all these Black figures, “sweet Baby Jesus,” the Black baby Jesus. I was thinking about how, after all that we’ve suffered through, niggas think I’ve made it in America if I’m driving a Phantom, or if my chain is VVS, or if I’m at the club spending racks on bitches exposing themselves to me.
It seems like Jay-Z and Kanye were somewhat in on that joke. Their verses aren’t necessarily about pro-Black themes. Kanye spends most of his verse talking about fashion. That materialism idea is being toyed with throughout the song.
Right. It’s interesting to me to think what those figures would have thought about our definition of “making it” now. “No Church in the Wild,” that’s a different thing. It’s a commentary on hierarchy and how people lay themselves out. An atheist can be more powerful than the Pope, by state of mind, just because he doesn’t believe in anything higher than himself. That song was a little deeper. There was no humor there; that was pretty serious. I guess, it’s political, I don’t know. Jay and Kanye played me what they were doing, and I knew what I needed to say. It’s one thing being in a room with your heroes making music and just tripping off that. But to be in a room with your heroes doing something that they actually fuck with and are giving you props for, that’s extra special.
It had to have been a crazy experience to come into the project after they’d already been working on it, and then ending up getting the first track on the album.
That was a big deal to me. I’m not too proud to say it—that meant a lot. Definitely a shining moment.
R&B has always been a controversial and malleable musical category. It’s gone from rock and roll, to bebop, to funk, to soul, to pop. Now, anytime you have a Black vocalist saying, “Ooh, baby, I love you,” that’s R&B. Artists like Jamie XX or Adele or Amy Winehouse don’t get labeled as just R&B. Are you fighting against that stigma?
I hope that I help to at least start that conversation, about why, if a Black guy walks up to you and says that he sings, you immediately say that he’s an R&B singer. I don’t think it’s accurate. I mean, what is all that shit? Like, what do genres mean? How are they distinguished? Chord progressions? I know there’s a blues scale—I don’t know.
You went from inching into the songwriting world and putting out this debut album, and in a few months you’re working with Beyoncé, Jay-Z, and Kanye West. Is there anyone else out there that you would want to write for? Where do you go from here as a songwriter?
I’d love to write a verse or a chorus or something on Earl’s album when he gets back. I’d love to work with—
I’m sorry to interrupt. But you know you just said something really important. We are to be expecting an album from Earl Sweatshirt when he comes back?
[laughs] Don’t take my word for it. You have to ask one of the presidents of Odd Future Records for an official statement on that. I’d imagine he might be itching to record an LP when he gets back, but what do I know?
So Earl is an artist on Odd Future Records, is that what that means?
That didn’t mean anything other than what I said.
You’ve mentioned that you spoke to Tyler on the phone for about two hours before you ever met him. What was that conversation about?
You know Tyler. It was all over the place. He let me know that he was just about to jack off before I called him. That was our first exchange. From there, we talked about music, dinosaurs, the Grammys he wanted and I wanted. It was just creative people talking about what drives them and what pops up in the head. From the first conversation, I had a sense that he was on to something.
On the song “There Will Be Tears,” you sing a bit about your father’s absence from your life. What exactly is your history with him?
That song is about my grandfather, who stepped in more as a father than my biological father. The last time I saw my father, he took me to the department store and bought me a pocketknife. I never saw him again. I was, like, six. Prior to the pocketknife department-store shopping spree, I didn’t see him much anyways. I didn’t have any relationship with him. If he walked into this room I’m sitting in right now, I wouldn’t know it’s him. I don’t know what he looks like. I lost my grandfather early too, but he was around long enough for me to at least learn a few things about being a man.
Much of your music is aimed at women, and reckons with womanhood and relationships. How has your relationship with your mother, and lack of one with your father, informed how you write about women and how you think about them?
I have a tremendous amount of respect for women because of my mother. When you have a child, women have to step up to the plate quicker than a man. I respect her for that. It’s not a small job. I know for my mom, especially as bad as I was during school and adolescence and shit, I put her through hell, and her love for me never wavered. The same can’t be said about my father. I look at women through that lens. I have a deep compassion for all people, and that compassion comes from my mom.
You’ve mentioned you didn’t want to bring too many big-name artists onto your next album. You said specifically that you wanted to do it without a feature from Kanye. Who are some of the people that we can expect you to be working with, and what’s the direction you’ll be taking?
I’m expanding sonically, I hope. I’m working with one guy, this guy Malay. I worked for a weekend at the Record Plant in L.A. with Pharrell, and we did a couple songs that will most likely be on it. I did “Disillusioned” with this keyboardist, but it’s not finished yet. I’ll probably finish that up with Tricky Stewart. It’s sample free, but there is an Elton John “Bennie and the Jets” interpolation, and there’s a Mary J. Blige interpolation as well. The sound—it’s a whole lot of synths and a whole lot of rhythm.
Judging by “Disillusioned” and “Super Rich Kids,” they both have an ’80s, synth-heavy Prince feel to them. Is that the general direction of the next album?
Like I said, down the rabbit hole. There’s a few more places that we go on this album. “Super Rich Kids” is the tentative title. I’m bouncing a few ideas around for others, like “Hilfiger Nigga.” It’s expanding on a lot of the shit that I did on Nostalgia, for sure. The song structures, the production, the storytelling. Still very visual.
Is the label more hands-on with this project? Do you still have the space to function as independently as you did with the first album?
I function as independently as I did—it’s in better studios. My recording conditions are a little bit more posh, but it’s the same. I still don’t have an A&R; I’m holding all the creative control. I’m making the record that I want to make.
Probably a nicer budget this time around?
Yeah, man. Definitely a cool budget. Trying not to go over, still be cost-effective. Definitely more resources: I can call in a harp section or a string section or whatever.
You mentioned that you don’t make beats, but you’re hands-on with the production of the record in the classic sense?
Very much so. I’m in everybody’s Kool-Aid, all the producers I work with. Not micromanaging—I like people to be creative and invested if I decide to work with them. But I definitely oversee things and get my hands dirty. Brainstorming things for instrumental arrangements, and obviously composing vocal arrangements alongside whoever I’m with. I keep to a small crew of people. The whole record is done by Molay, Pharrell, and Tricky. So I’m there, man. If at three minutes and ten seconds in a song, there needs to be a horn quartet that comes in for seven seconds and never shows up again, that idea is probably coming from me.
When can we expect to hear or see something?
Eh, whenever it’s done. I don’t know the timeline; I’m pretty anti-release date. It’s going to be different on this one, for sure. It’ll be much more structured this time around. You might get a warning that’s a little bit more than five minutes before, only because it has to be.