Question in the Form of An Answer: Frank Ocean

Yesterday, the LA Times ran my profile of Odd Future. No need to rehash the nature of the divide between print and online. Obviously, there are spatial constraints, style guidelines, and obligations...
By    April 11, 2011

Yesterday, the LA Times ran my profile of Odd Future. No need to rehash the nature of the divide between print and online. Obviously, there are spatial constraints, style guidelines, and obligations to explain “swag” to a Sunday newspaper audience. Also, writing a story about Odd Future without cursing is like eating a pork chop with no hands (word to Pimp C).

Initially, the idea was to devote an entire segment to each group member. Upon writing, it became immediately clear that I’d never be able to do it in the space apportioned. Consequently, I have dozens of hours worth of interviews compiled over the last three months. Since it seems stupid to let them molder in my hard drive, I’ll be running them on PotW over the next week or two. The first is Frank Ocean (nee Christopher “Lonny” Breaux), the consensus pick for the first Odd Future mainstream break-out star. At least, according to Peter Rosenberg, who predicted to me that Ocean will have a song in heavy Hot 97 rotation by the end of Summer.

Since releasing Nostalgia/Ultra in February, Ocean has become an Odd Future favorite even among those who don’t like Odd Future. I wrote about his record for the Times last month, so I won’t repeat myself. The point is for him to tell his story. The 23-year old New Orleans native is unusually thoughtful and intelligent, blessed with a vivid memory and strong opinions. He will go far.

You’ve been adamant about not being pigeonholed as an R&B singer? What is it that you find so limiting about that distinction?

I don’t think I said it’s limiting, but I just think it’s inaccurate when you’re making music inspired by so many different things. I have a broad sonic palette and I mix everything together. It’s just not the same thing.

Well, I imagine it has a lot to do with the singing style as much as anything. You’re not rapping and there aren’t guitars, so you generally get branded as R&B.

I agree and unfortunately, it probably has something to do with my ethnicity. That’s just what it is. I’m definitely influenced by Rhythm and Blues, as much as I’m influenced by other shit that I listen to. I think that it’s like a lot of music that’s progressive in new ways, it’s a fusion of at least a couple genres. I’m not saying that this is my manifesto or anything, but it’s definitely not a straight up R&B record.

One of the things that struck me about it is that you’re telling interesting narratives that don’t necessarily conform to what people think of when they think of contemporary R&B song, which often boils down to, let me think of a creative metaphor or phrase to describe my attempts to have sex.

Well, I’ve always been into lyrics sheets for songs. I’m into reading and straight up storytelling and structure and song craft. It’s a piece of the records, it’s more than just an abstract thing for a vibe. I’m always about imagery, and that usually works best is the storytelling format. Sometimes, I write a song and it will be about photographic lines and trying to get a vibe though. I’ve been writing songs for a long time. My approach is about telling stories. I’m just doing what I like and what I would want to hear.

Who produced the record?

For Nostalgia/Ultra, it was me e-mailing my friends in February of 2010 and asking them for beats. I’d been in LA for five years at that point, and those were just people whom that I met trying to climb up the ladder. I’d meet people writing songs and then I’d just hit them up have them send me files. None of them asked me up for money, they were down for it. In the new download, we did a little insert with the producer’s names.

Do you produce at all yourself?

A little bit. I’m not great at drum programming, nor am I that technically inclined in general, so I definitely did lean on other people for the beatmaking. I’m all about taste. I pick the beats that I like. Sometimes, the producer themselves would hate it, but I’d be like, ‘that’s the greatest shit.’  I wanted to make something cohesive, and that can difficult via e-mail.

Did you spent your whole life in New Orleans or did you move around a lot?

I went to High School in the West Bank in New Orleans, but I was born in Long Beach. I lived in Vegas for a little while, but I was in New Orleans from 6-18. At 18, I moved to LA.

N.O. has a rich musical history. Do you feel that it seeped into the way you process and make music?

I really don’t, but who’s to say?, Maybe it was. There is a member of my family who is a pretty legendary jazz musician. His name’s Terence Blanchard, but I wasn’t close with him. My mom wasn’t really feeling the idea of me being involved in music. My dad was, and he hadn’t much success and he wasn’t really involved in my life. I think I just picked up that affinity purely through the helix.

But I don’t know. I was definitely influenced by the character of the city, the energy of the city, it definitely doesn’t have an American feel. I  haven’t traveled outside of the country yet, but I’ve been in most of the major cities in America and there’s no place like it. A lot of real shit goes on in New Orleans. I wouldn’t have chosen to grow up anywhere else.

Did you study music anywhere or did you mainly pick it up yourself?

All self-taught. I used to want to learn when I was younger. I’d do odd jobs to save up money, but I never could afford to stay in vocal lessons or piano lessons. I played violin for half a semester. It wasn’t really my way.  I can play piano enough to write a songs. That’s one thing I can say growing up in New Orleans, you’re always in the vicinity of great musicians. I feel like I can sing or write a song next to anybody.

You left New Orleans in 05. Was Hurricane Katrina a pretty big reason in that decision?

It was a pretty big conflict. I was at the University of New Orleans before the storm, and I went to opening lectures for a few classes and then we got the hurricane warning. But it was hurricane season and there would be warnings every year like clockwork. It just seemed like another time at first. My family always left when we got those warnings — no matter what. So we left that time just to be safe.

I remember doing laundry and putting my clothes in the hamper and driving to Texas where we had a family friend who we always stayed with. We stayed out there for a minute as everything went down. My story about Katrina isn’t as tragic as many of the others. There’s so many really tragic stories. Some people who never left their houses, people who had everything destroyed. Terence’s mom lives in Chantilly and I saw her house ruined. She didn’t have digital photos or anything like that. Everything was destroyed. Every photo and momento, a lifetime of memories. She can’t go on the internet and retrieve them.

I ended up transferring to University of Lafeyette. I was an English Major and pre-law, just in case music didn’t work out. I finished out the semester, while still trying to be productive on the music end too. After the storm, my studio resources in New Orleans were gone and Lafayette was a cool chill town, but there was no studio. Well, there was one 45 minutes away that charged $125 an hour. I couldn’t afford that.

It was around that time when I dropped out of school. I told my mom that I was going out to LA to record for six weeks and told her I’d be right back. But she knew, even my girlfriend at the time knew. Everyone but me knew that I wasn’t coming home anytime soon.

When you came out to LA did you have any contacts in the industry?

Hell nah. I didn’t know anybody in this business. I had a connect with an engineer, who gave me a super cheap deal, $50 for 4 hours. So I had nice studio to lay down vocals in. The guy ended up becoming Lil Wayne’s Pro Tools guy.

So how did you go from anonymous to Def Jam signed?

It was crazy. I knew literally nobody at all. It’s one of the craziest things making a move like that and having to build a social network from scratch. Now I’ve been out here a minute and have friends, but it took five years. By the time I would’ve finished college, I got my deal. It was just like relentless networking and relentless work at my craft.

I always knew that I had natural talents and abilities from an early point on. And I definitely put my 10,000 hours in, figuring out how to do what I wanted to do and what my identity was. It was about honing things to the point where you’re really good at it and can do it at will. That’s really the coolest part about it now. I can listen to when I first moved out here and when I was 13 and first getting recorded, and look at my live footage. It’s childlike and uncomfortable. But now, I can look back and be like ‘wow, I was there and I was there and I was there.’ The last couple years or so, I’ve been in a groove. But you’re always learning and always discovering. I still network, but at a certain point, it’s like this is my circle, this is what I do. It’s not all about, let me get a session with so and so.

So how did you get signed? Did you have a demo?

I never had a demo. I didn’t do any of the normal shit as far as being signed. At least, from what  I hear the norms are, I didn’t do any of that shit., I basically was writing just to get into the swing of writing and placing songs on projects. I’d work every day sometimes two sessions a day, 16-18 hr days. A lot of the songs never left my hard drive. I’d work for the sake of working. Sometimes so and so would hear something and they’d come in and work with me.

Then Tricky Stewart came in.  I met him on some writing shit. A guy managing me at the time introduced me to him, and basically Tricky heard some shit, liked it, and said, ‘I’m up at Def Jam, I really think you should put out records on your own and be an artist instead of giving your songs to other people.’ That was why I moved out here in the first place, but writing songs wasn’t a bad lifestyle. You can make truckloads of money and you can always be like a nobody in the streets as far as fame is concerned and get to work on music. You can make the money and not be famous and own all your own shit. But it’s never been about the money for me, not primarily. I mean, of course, it’s important and necessary, but it’s not the main thing.

So I took him up on the offer and I just sat there at Def Jam. I was like I’m going to work and I’m going to do this project and you give me studio time and a budget. So that’s what I did. I just stayed positive and I never felt like it was anybody’s responsibility but mine as far as me winning. It would’ve been great if they were as active as me, but I knew that I still had to win. So I did that and that’s the abridged version of that story. I don’t want to do the blame game story. It was a gift to be left alone, even though it wasn’t intended or the master plan.

So are you still at Def Jam?

I’m definitely still at Def Jam and I feel good about it. Why not? Def jam is legendary. Kanye’s one of my favorite artists and a direct mentor to me and a lot of young artists.

You’ve referenced yourself as being very spiritual. How big of a part is religion and spirituality in your life?

I’m a big God fan and I’m a big fan of love and peace and harmony and all of that classic halfway trite. It’s even cliché to say this, but its true: some of the most cliché shit is some of the most universally true shit. You can lose yourself in a lot of ways, especially in this industry. You can lose yourself to your ego, to desire,what have you. I don’t think I’m above it.  I’m just really fighting to stay on my feet and enjoy this, and not get caught up in the bullshit and not get caught up on myself, and not take myself too seriously.

This season’s praises will change to harsh criticism soon enough, but as long as you’re centered and not dependent on the praise, you can deal with it. It’s not a big deal either way. I don’t ever want to get to the point where I’m living off every compliment.

So how did you meet the Odd Future dudes?

I met Syd first. I knew a lot of alumni from Hamilton High school and I met her through mutual friends. I met different people at different times. Syd first, then Tyler, then Earl, Mike, Hodgy and Left, I met Domo a little later.

First time I met them, they were doing a show in the valley and this was like end of 09. A friend was part of a crew that does club promotion and he booked Odd Future. It was a crazy little show and I met them and just developed that friendship. It just grew on some like minded stuff.  We get it in as a certain obvious fuck it all mentality, but it’s not ‘fuck everything,’ it’s ‘fuck all the bullshit.’ Everyone’s trying to have fun and trying to check goals off their list. It’s all super talented and super creative people who are just resourceful.

It’s refreshing for me to be in sessions with them. When I started working with them, it was the first time in a minute that I’d had fun in a session. If you fuck up on a take, someone’s clowning you on it, busting up at you. In normal settings, it’s not like that. It reminded me that this is supposed to be fun. There’s supposed to be a creativity and energy encapsulated in what we’re doing.

It seems like that sort of situation has allowed everyone to improve. Did you feel something similar?

I have improved, and my story is a little bit different from the rest because I’m from out of town. But that’s another one of the cool things about being in a collective, it’s challenging when the person next to you is really good and you don’t want to be left behind. But it’s more about wanting to be better just because there’s no room for complacency. It’s about pushing it and working hard. We’re trying to be innovative and fresh every time.

It’s interesting that you’re religious and Tyler is staunchly atheist. Have you guys talked about that sort of thing and how do you reconcile that?

We’ve had our talks about upside down crosses and how I don’t think that’s cool. But that’s just an example. Yet through that conflict, there’s growth and there’s acceptance. Not just tolerance, but real acceptance. It’s like however you are is fine, the truth is what’s expressed in your actions, and that’s love, loyalty, and caring. As cheesy as that is, it’s true. Tyler’s very outspoken about his beliefs, and some might claim that it’s from a hedonistic place, but it’s not. He’s one of the most super compassionate people I know. I’m definitely not on a spiritual high horse or trying to convert anyone. I’m just trying to look at everyone on eye level.

ZIP: Frank Ocean-Nostalgia/Ultra
MP3: Frank Ocean-“Pyrite (Fake Gold)”

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