Frank Ocean, formerly Christian Edwin Breaux, is an accomplished songwriter, member of a hip hop collective, and critically acclaimed singer. The music he makes isn’t just RnB and slow jams, it is thoughtful, ambiguous, and quietly avant-garde. Quite the achievement for an artist of only 32 years of age.
Whilst Ocean began as a successful songwriter for other artists, including John Legend and Justin Bieber, he was dissatisfied with the hollow-ness of writing for other performers. When he discovered and fell in with Odd Future, the quirky and self-governing hip hop group, he was inspired and invigorated with their DIT attitude.
Once he joined the collective and sang on various Odd Future and MellowHype releases, his voice rang clear and melodic. He also struck up a particularly successful friendship with Tyler the Creator. This friendship, in turn, inspired Ocean to pursue a career apart from the collective, writing songs for himself.
What a great decision it turned out to be. This brought us Ocean’s debut mixtape; nostaligia, ULTRA (2011). The mixtape was critically acclaimed, and it brought Ocean to the forefront of consciousness for everyone who has even a passing interest in RnB music.
The mixtape is languorous and surreal, featuring tracks that discuss Ocean’s own life and relationships. On it, Ocean samples various multi-genre artists, drawing together various melodic inspirations and repurposing them for his own innovative devices. Though it was released back in 2011, nostalgia, ULTRA it still sounds fresh and exciting today.
Largely thanks to the notoriety gained from his mixtape, Ocean appeared on Kanye West’s No Church in the Wild, the first track on the sublime Watch the Throne. The mixtape contains various pop-cultural references beyond the sampling of other artists, including references to Stanley Kubrick and Patrick Swayze. This mixtape catapulted Ocean to fame, garnering him praise from throughout the music world including from Nas, Beyoncé and Lupe Fiasco.
Swiftly following nostalgia,ULTRA Ocean released his debut album with Def Jam Records: Channel Orange (2012). If his mixtape was considered successful then this album went stratospheric. Ocean earned six Grammy nominations as well as winning album of the year at the Soul Train Music Awards.
The record is a narrative masterpiece, describing unrequited love and discussing substance abuse, class and consumerism and surrealism. It utilises he best bits of every genre going, flipping the conventions of RnB and blending jazz, funk, soul and pop to make one ground-breaking synth-y record.
Channel Orange is also the record that prompted Ocean to ‘come out’ – posting a textedit file on his tumblr account which clarified his sexuality. Though as his group Odd Future pointedly asked: why was everyone so interested in the first place?
The open letter reads like a piece of conceptual creative writing – he calls being in unrequited love being thrown off a cliff and he said of the experience that it made his song writing effortless, like breathing. Now he had something to really write about.
So, Ocean released two ground breaking, genre-bending bodies of work in just a couple of years. The music world was poised for his next release, touted to be titled Boys Don’t Cry and released in 2015. However, the record, titled Blonde on release didn’t come out until 2016 and when it did, it came with a visual album; Endless which was released digitally as a streaming-only piece of work.
Endless offers a window into the creation process for Ocean, playing demo after demo of raw vocals but really, it released him from his Def Jam contract. Unsurprisingly, Blonde defies genre conventions and glitters with melodic, abstract ambience. The album is spare and economic with its sounds and composition but it fills the listener with emotion and feelings of solace and introspection.
Blonde and Endless came along with a magazine, this time really called Boys Don’t Cry, which provided meta-glimpses into a tech-saturated life that still vibes with emotional humanity. Interviews, screen-shots and photographs congregate to create yet another narrative strand. The magazine also included contributions from other artists like A$AP Rocky and Tyler the Creator, making the magazine a valuable artefact for the poetic/literary/hip hop world.
So, what’s next for Frank Ocean? Well, since Blonde and Endless, Ocean has released a couple of stand-alone tracks including a cover of Moon River and he has featured on various other artists’ work. He has photographed for Vogue and for i-D Magazine so perhaps we can expect more visual work from this artist. Whatever Frank Ocean does next, it will likely subvert our expectations somehow and continue to shape and redefine the genre- whatever the genre is.
Leah is a literature graduate from Bristol. Likes: Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, My So Called Life, Goodfellas, and Ally McBeal.