Frank Ocean is a dreamboat — soft eyes, strong jaw, swoony gap teeth, quiet intellect. But on this balmy November evening, his suit jacket’s looking kinda tight. The acclaimed, Los Angeles–based singer-songwriter is launching his first-ever solo show in New Orleans — the hometown he left more than five years ago after Hurricane Katrina — and his nerves are clearly in flux, no doubt amped by the handful of girls who showed up carrying copies of his high school yearbook. He is dressed in an impeccably tailored and pressed ink-black suit, with his signature Japanese naval flag bandanna tied around his skull. A sensual video collage of underwater shots and clips from classic ’90s hip-hop films plays behind him, emphasizing the gauziness of his music. The women populating the first seven rows of the venue alternately salivate and weep. Ocean’s posture is taut, though, like he’s not yet sure how to move his limbs in front of other people.
But no one came here tonight expecting to be regaled with pelvic theatrics. They came to hear the Voice. Beguiling with its radiant warmth, the Voice can be otherworldly, sirenlike; it contains multitudes. The Voice drives fans bonkers, but it also mesmerizes and devastates record executives, music critics, industry wonks, Web nerds, grouchy uncles, his manager Kelly Clancy. Ocean opens with a ballsy but beautiful Sade cover (“By Your Side”) before gliding into “Thinking About You,” a simple song with a falsetto that shames angels. By the haunting death dirge “Swim Good,” he’s still a little ginger about the body language, but his mix of mystique and intensity is working. Ocean shouts out his old neighborhood, the 7th Ward of New Orleans — also home to Mannie Fresh, Mia X, and Jelly Roll Morton — during a brief jaunt into Prime Time’s “She’s Giving Me Love,” the NOLA bounce classic. Occasionally, he’ll crack a dazzling, shy smile, drawing libidinous shrieks from the audience, which knows every word, though his only official release to date is the 2011 “mixtape” nostalgia, ULTRA., released for free on the Internet. Frank Ocean
is clearly motoring toward some supreme level of stardom, whether he’s comfortable with it or not.
Earlier that night between soundcheck and set, in the venue’s sprawling green room, Ocean shakes my hand and says a sweet hello, at the prompting of Clancy (who also co-manages Odd Future with her husband, Christian). Flanked by his tour manager Rich Schaefer, and cousin Chito, he’s still dressed in sweats. As it turns out, he has the beginnings of a cold, which will soon escalate and force him to postpone his debut New York performance the next day. He’s seeking hot tea, so it’s a millisecond of a meeting; and it ends up being my last. Over a period of a few perplexing months, via numerous e-mails and anxious phone calls, Ocean declines to be interviewed for this piece. The reason given: He’ll talk for the cover of the magazine, but nothing less. It’s unclear whether this edict comes from Clancy, whose passion for Ocean’s music takes the form of proselytizing pride, or Ocean, who is known for being exacting and cautious with his image.
That afternoon, Clancy — a pretty, well-put-together, early thirtysomething California native in boots and skinny jeans — sits down with me over coffee. (It was a few weeks after I’d finished spending eight days touring with the rest of Odd Future.) “I’m notoriously protective,” she says, “because [Odd Future] are young, and the industry is full of every type of person, and it can eat you alive. I always joke with Frank that we talk like we’re the same age, but he’s still young. He’s 24.”
Ocean inspires protectors, both in the biblical sense (his talent is of the rare type that some might attribute to God’s blessing) and the professional sense (he could make a lot of people a shit-ton of money). So, there will always be someone looking out for an artist of his caliber, whether it’s in his best interests or theirs or both — which is why, perhaps, he’s right to be wary.
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.”
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.