Frank Ocean Has a Cold
A soulful enigma whose name is partially inspired by the Rat Pack and whose timeless vocal gift recalls legends Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye. How deep is this Ocean? Plenty of interested parties want to know.
When I ask about the way Ocean projects a sense of mystery, how he measures what he puts out and what he leaves for others to interpret, Elderkin gets elusive. “Yup,” he replies. “Good call. You answered it yourself. Mystery. I think it’s just…you know. Yup.” He giggles a bit. When I push the point and say, “You’re embodying my question right now.” Elderkin replies, “You’re embodying your question. You just reciprocated the embodiment of your question. At the end of the day, Frank is
a really cool guy. Super nice, super cool.”
Back at the New Orleans show, as Ocean tests out a couple of new songs — “Super Rich Kids,” which conjures both Billy Joel and Mary J. Blige, and “Disillusioned,” a dollop of sparse funk — no one is more rapt than his Los Angeles family, the kids in Odd Future, who rerouted their U.S. tour in order to show up and be supportive. Watching from the balcony, the crew is psyched, but Ocean’s close friend, Tyler, the Creator, is beaming. Ocean’s beautiful mother and ten-year-old brother are also in the building, while Christian and Kelly Clancy bookend the younger Odd Future dudes, a proud papa and mama. Before the show, as Ocean’s powerful a cappella wafted backstage, Kelly Clancy told me, “He soundchecked [the Sade cover], and I’m standing back watching, and you can’t help but, like, tears well up. It was more than just the beauty of hearing him sing. It was a culmination of everything that he’s been through, and everything that has happened to get to this point today. It was like watching the beginning of the rest of his career.”
It’s been more than a year since Ocean officially became a member of Odd Future and the crew posted “Novacane” on their Tumblr, yet people still wonder why a sophisticated singer-songwriter would mess with such an anarchic group of kids. Tyler, the Creator explained it to me at length, and his answer is revealing. In early 2010, after a mutual friend showed Ocean the video for Tyler’s “French,” a street horror clip depicting teens going wild, Ocean called the rapper/producer to compliment him, and they hit it off. Soon, they were calling each other on the phone, talking about “chords and people not taking us serious,” says Tyler, who was still poor and sleeping on the floor of his grandmother’s house. Ocean took Tyler under his wing long before Odd Future had attained any real success.
“He got publishing money, and he would pick me up in his BMW 2011 X6, taking me to weird expensive restaurants and shit, just showing me a lifestyle I’ve never fucking seen,” says Tyler. “I didn’t have money; he spotted me. Little shit. He picked up skateboarding randomly. He always told me that I just made him feel young, made him feel like how much fun life is. I guess he was just at a time and place where he was, like, fuck this shit. But when we came around, we kinda just brought light into his world, like, let’s go drive somewhere crazy! Aaaah!“
The relationship reinvigorated Ocean as a person and songwriter, so he first released nostalgia, ULTRA. through the Odd Future site. “He told me, when people was posting that shit up, he likes when it says, ‘Odd Future’s Frank Ocean,’ because that’s some family shit,” says Tyler. “And that just feels cool. He supports me 100 percent. And he’s a devoted Christian dude, but you know what, he doesn’t give a fuck. That motherfucker, for sure, is inspiration as fuck.”
If Frank Ocean has managed to maintain a close friendship with such an off-the-wall, attention-deficit provocateur like Tyler, why is everyone treating Ocean with kid gloves? The answer might lie with the singer himself. His Tumblr is full of fascinating ephemera, embedded YouTubes of church singers, and untouchable snapshots that look like old Super-8 movies. His impressionistic blog entries are an astonishing read; under a photograph of him in a park with his family, he wrote, “the kid on my back, that’s my brother ryan. he thinks he’s prince harry. the lady behind us is our mom. she’s beautiful, like nefertiti. my brother thinks i can fly.”
In fact, Ocean’s public reticence is more reminiscent of Joan Didion than the volatile eccentricity of, say, late-era R. Kelly. He’s adamant that he not be pegged as an R&B artist, because he thinks the term is racialized. And historically, he’s right: It was coined in the 1940s as a marketing tag to describe music made by black artists and generally coded to segregate. It’s clear why Ocean rejects it — his talent is too broad, like one of his favorite artists, Prince, or Ocean’s closest predecessor, Sam Cooke. But it’s also his need for control.
“When he leaves the studio,” says Kelly Clancy, “he has his own hard drives; he makes the studio dump everything onto his drives and wipe everything off the studio’s. He takes them in his little briefcase. It can be four in the morning, but he’ll stay there until the sessions are loaded and they’re wiped off the main board. He’s insanely precious about it….I always tell him, I don’t think you realize how talented you really are, because you’re so used to critiquing yourself and being your worst critic, that you forget how much raw talent you really have.”
The next and last time I see Ocean, it’s in late November at New York’s Bowery Ballroom for the second night of two sold-out makeup shows. He’s clearly more settled into himself and his body language is looser. He cracks jokes, works the stage. Even his rich voice has an added swing. But when the set begins, I am still outside, which is why I’m in a perfect position to spy a diplomatic-looking black SUV pull up to the curb. Doors open, and a small gang of executives, all New York natty in suits and importance, pile out. It’s the crew from Def Jam, marching into the venue, fashionably late.
This story originally appeared in the March/April 2012 Issue of SPIN.