Frank Ocean was born Christopher Breaux, but everyone calls him Lonny, and it was under his government name that he signed a publishing contract with Island Def Jam in 2009. (He later changed it legally to Christopher Francis Ocean, based in part on the original Ocean’s 11.) He’d been writing his magical-realist songs for pop stars — Justin Bieber, John Legend, Brandy — but as an artist, he’d gone unnoticed. So when he released nostalgia, ULTRA., a flurry of major labels came knocking, including Island Def Jam, who didn’t know he was already on their roster. “IDJ [Island Def Jam] knew him as Lonny Breaux, the writer,” says Clancy. “They were just saying, ‘Oh, this Frank Ocean guy who’s affiliated with Odd Future’; and they didn’t connect the two. Then we had to learn who everybody was [with Def Jam]. We had just started working with Frank, so it was learning everybody’s roles at one time, and it was a lot to navigate.”
Clancy chooses her words carefully. Def Jam will release the follow-up to nostalgia, ULTRA. late this spring, as well as Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music compilation album, which features Ocean, who recorded two hooks for West and Jay-Z’s Watch the Throne. Though some artists in career limbo dream about such a reversal of fortune, it’s questionable how pleasant the inevitable tug-of-war between Burgeoning Star, Management Team That Paid Its Dues, and Bottom Line–Obsessed Major Label will be. Ocean’s PR is still handled through Odd Future’s indie publicist and requests to Def Jam for interviews with producer Tricky Stewart, A&R head Karen Kwak, or anyone at the label, prove fruitless.
The video for “Novacane,” his first single, was done “pretty DIY,” says friend and director Nabil Elderkin, Ocean’s only collaborator on the shoot. In early March 2011, a couple of weeks after nostalgia, ULTRA. was released, Ocean unleashed on his Twitter account:
i. did. this. not ISLAND DEF JAM. thats why you see no label logo on the artwork that I DID….guess its my fault for trusting my dumbass lawyer and signing my career over to a failing company….for the fuckin win. & whether whoever the fuck agrees with whatever or not. this is how i feel. & this is my truth. & this is my twitter….fuck Def Jam & any company that goes the length of signing a kid with dreams & talent w/ no intention of following through. fuck em.
“[Being both a songwriter and artist] is definitely a hustle, but for the most part, truly great songs find their way,” says Katie Welle, Senior Director of Creative A&R at Sony/ATV Music Publishing. Welle handles Odd Future’s publishing and works with artists like Clams Casino, Da Internz, and frequent Kanye collaborator Jeff Bhasker; she wanted to sign Ocean when he was simply Lonny Breaux, songwriter. “nostalgia, ULTRA. is something people will be listening to for a very long time. Even from the beginning, the songs he wrote for Bieber and Brandy, the guy has the goods.”
By September, Def Jam not only had overlooked Ocean’s tirade, but had ponied up for the “Swim Good” video, a noirish clip in which the singer goes samurai on some figurative demons and a custom orange stretch Lincoln explodes, amid the grandeur of Big Sur. “He’s a true artist,” says Elderkin, who has directed clips for Diddy and Bon Iver, among others, and is currently working on a book of photography with Kanye West. “He’s always had a path of where he wanted to go and how he wanted to do things. But he’s open to experimentation, and takes in a lot of what he sees around him. He has a lot of depth.”