Growing up in New Orleans, Frank Ocean (born Christopher “Lonny” Breaux) was surrounded by Jazz music. As a teenager he tried to earn money any way that he could so he could rent out timeslots at a studio and work on his songwriting. Like many kids graduating high school, he enrolled at the University of New Orleans to major in English. A couple of months later, the devastating Hurricane Katrina hit and he transferred to University of Louisiana at Lafayette, leaving his most of his belongings behind.
Academics weren't necessarily Frank's strong spot, and pursuing music was his dream. School suddenly became a thing of the past when a friend in Los Angeles invited him to move out West and have some studio time. Now his career was just beginning. He was introduced to ghostwriting, all of a sudden meeting big people in the industry, and writing a mix of melodies and lyrics for many big recording artists such as John Legend, Justin Bieber, and Brandy. At the end of 2009, some four or five years after leaving his home in Louisiana, he connected with Odd Future, a slightly disordered group of hooligan rappers.
Following the joining of Odd Future, Ocean got a record deal as a solo artist with a well-known producer named Tricky Stewart of Def Jam Records (he produced Rihanna’s “Umbrella” and Beyonce’s “Single Ladies”). After signing Ocean, Def Jam didn’t give him the personal necessities needed to shine so in turn, he decided to drop the affiliation and record on his own
February 2011, nostalgia, ULTRA was released. This was Frank Ocean’s first mixtape and he released it for free via his Tumblr blog. It wasn’t promoted, people only started to hear about it through word of mouth. Even though this was his first mixtape, there was already a hint of what Ocean was capable of within The Lonny Breaux Collection. [The LBC was a collection of 64 songs that Frank Ocean (formerly named Lonny Breaux) had supposedly recorded when in New Orleans and Los Angeles]. During a 2011 interview with Ernest Baker of Complex Magazine, Ocean stated that the record felt like a longing for the past, that it was nostalgic. He then explained the meaning behind the artwork, that the orange car was his dream car, an E30 M3.
When he uploaded nostalgia, ULTRA to iTunes, he categorized the genre as bluegrass. As an artist, Ocean doesn’t like boundaries, he doesn’t like boxes, he doesn’t like labels, and his view on bluegrass was that it is swag… “All the way swag” and the last thing he wanted was for people to waste their time classifying music.
The mixtape itself includes a lot of samples from artists such as Coldplay, MGMT, The Eagles, and a couple others. It also includes a couple short interludes between tracks. These are named after video games from the 1990s, contributing to the nostalgic feeling of the album. Nostalgia, ULTRA begins with Ocean singing over “Strawberry Swing” a Coldplay song, creating a floating in a dream feeling. The dream then fades out and a beeping alarm clock comes into reality. The next song on the mixtape is “Novacane”, written about a girl Ocean met at Coachella. She wanted to go to dental school real bad and was doing porn on the side in order to pay for her education. Following, “We All Try” is a track in which Ocean touches more on his openness by singing “I believe that marriage isn’t between a man and a woman, but between love and love”. A week before Ocean dropped the mixtape he had announced his bisexuality on his foremost social media outlook, Tumblr.
Songs 4 Women is the 4th full track on the mixtape. Here Ocean is conflicted and not sure whether he should enjoy or regret his feelings for the women in his love life. He recites this track with the instrumental version of Radiohead’s “Optimistic” in the background. On top of that, Ocean used to think that he sang songs for his girlfriends, but now he no longer does, leaving him to feel lost. The following songs in the mixtape are all about love, and how he can have sex without dealing with being hurt in the future. “There Will Be Tears” is a cover of Mr. Hudson’s “There Will Be Tears”. On this track Ocean sings about not having a father and not being able to show his feelings because his other father-less friends held their emotions together. But Frank is against that, and will show his tears and his feelings often. In “Swim Good”, he was going to drive his car into the ocean. People think this song is about murder-suicide, a fantasy about escaping himself. The lyrics could also represent the fame that will eventually catch up to Ocean and whether or not it will change him. He may be afraid of hitting that point of stardom where he stops making genuine music. Following “Swim Good” is a track called “Dust”. Here I interpret that Ocean isn’t actually in a library when he sings, “Who’s that talking in my library? / Is that you? No I won’t put you out”. But instead a girl has allowed him to see and he doesn’t want to put her out, in fear of losing his clear sight, metaphorically. The mixtape approaches its end with a beautifully sampled version of The Eagles’ “Hotel California” called “American Wedding”, another song focusing on his relationships with women. “Soul Calibur” the last interlude of a 1990s video game follows that. And then finally the last song on the mixtape is a sampled song from MGMT’s “Electric Feel” titled “Nature Feels”, and it is simply a jam.
A year after nostalgia, ULTRA was released, Ocean came out with his first full studio album titled channel ORANGE. He strategically released the album digitally one week prior than it’s official release date to prevent it from being leaked. Ocean hyped the album up with five standout singles including “Thinkin Bout You”, a track again about relationships.
Ocean rarely tours, but to support channel ORANGE he announced a 14-date tour kicking it off at The Showbox in Seattle and ending at St. Andrew’s Hall in Detroit. He ended up cancelling that last tour stop in Detroit due to illness and ended his tour in Toronto. Since channel ORANGE’s tour two years ago, he’s hit up few festivals in the States and lots overseas. He performed twice this past summer, once at Bonnaroo Festival in Tennessee and the other at Pemberton Music Festival in British Columbia. This past April he stated that his second album was almost finished but he has since been silent about the topic. Hopefully we get some news soon, as we are all anticipating Frank’s sophomore album.
By Ben Schechter