In Praise of Frank Ocean

Frank Ocean - 2012 press photo 01 (1448x815)It’s incredible how little I have written about Frank Ocean considering how many times I have played his music over the last four years, and how deeply it has touched me. Following the release of his second album, Blonde, in August, it’s high time I remedied this fact with a piece in praise of this singular artist.

Frank Ocean is a songwriter and singer with a gift for capturing the dreams and desires, anxieties and trials so many of us face every day. He sings about love, sex and heartbreak through the lens of a future past. And yet, there’s a darkness to his imagery too, depicting drugs, adultery, self-doubt and suicide.

But, like glimpsing one part of a giant mosaic, to hear a few of Ocean’s songs in isolation does not give you the full picture of the man or the world he inhabits.

Frank Ocean had been making music for a number of years before he became a global sensation. A catalogue of his demos, which span some 60 songs, can be found under his previous stage name, Lonny Breaux.

But that’s not where I started with his music and, truth be told, it’s not were newcomers should start either.

By modern standards of internet hype and pre-release music streaming, I was late to Frank Ocean. I hadn’t properly heard of him until late 2012, and, even then, the cloud of what appeared to me at the time as sycophantic hype and pointless celebrity gossip about his sexuality made me reluctant to engage at all. I was in my early 20s, and figured that year’s R&B heart-throb-of-the-moment was really just another Chris Brown or Trey Songz: the ladies may be hot for him, but what could he possibly have to say that could be more compelling than my then-biggest musical obsession, Lianne La Havas?

When I first listened to Channel Orange in December 2012, I didn’t get it. Sure, there were interesting musical moments to be had, but I couldn’t see how a disjointed, fever dream of an album could be winning so much critical praise and adoration from so many folks. So, I forgot about it and moved on.

That is until I listened to Nostalgia, Ultra in April the following year. That was when Ocean’s music started to make sense. That was when the carefully formulated audio alchemy that he had created – in collaboration with the producers on Channel Orange – suddenly clicked. Ocean’s music, his “retro futurism”, was about romance in the digital age. About loneliness and abandonment (‘There Will Be Tears’). About wanting to make that fine romance we all want come true. About false starts and first times. About half-remembered dreams and forgotten faces.

This west coast singer-songwriter had constructed a flipbook of vivid stories for dreamers, lonely hearts and those who live with the breakneck pace of modern life, but would prefer to go back to “a simpler time”, however idealistic and fantastical that sentiment may be.

Nostalgia, Ultra is packed with vivid stories. When an artist chooses to sample or, in this case, lift entire instrumental tracks for use in their own music, such an act can hinder just as much as it can help. Ocean used songs by the Eagles, MGMT and Coldplay to outstanding effect, creating whole new emotional associations and imagery from well-known instrumentals.

In ‘Strawberry Swing’, you have an entire prologue of a tragic space romance – a Titan AE gone wrong – in four minutes. You’ll never hear Coldplay the same way again. In ‘Songs 4 Women’, Ocean is a brutha who’s still finding his game, with no ride, no new songs, and no apartment of his own, but one high school honey still wants to eat lunch and ride the bus with him. And in ‘American Wedding’, he’s a 20-something drifter, with a Mustang and nothing else to his name, save for a book-smart college sweetheart who also happens to be an immigrant. It’s a song about interracial dating and cultural obstacles set to the Eagles’ ‘Hotel California’, and it’s one of the strongest tear-jerkers of its kind so far this decade.

Ocean is a master when it comes to messages in his music. But he’s equally good at delivering those message, over surreal-sounding R&B that’s perfectly prescribed to suit each song’s mood. You can heard this in ‘We All Try’, a flawless marriage of male emotion with a tender melody by producers Happy Perez and Corey Chase. This song encapsulates Ocean’s brilliance: his everyman charm, his enthralling storytelling and his impeccable, saint-like voice.

Returning to Channel Orange in the weeks and months that followed, the whole album was alive to me in ways it hadn’t been when I’d first listened to it, as if a black-and-white silent film had suddenly been cast into vibrant high definition and given surround sound audio.

Channel Orange was a masterful collection of individually crafted scenes that offered a snapshot of our complex modern life with surreal and, sometimes, scary accuracy. It’s an album for a world where attention spans are increasingly measured in seconds rather than minutes. And it was also a product of its time, created in the midst of major label apathy and hungry anticipation from Ocean’s early followers.

Thinkin Bout You’ was where it started. (Actually, for those of us old enough to appreciate it, an early iPhone text tone and start-up sound effects from original PlayStation is where it truly begin.) This song with its slow vibrations, its azure skies and fighter jets Ocean doesn’t get to fly, was pure sex.

Ocean was depicting a modern life where we’re struggling to connect, to be together, to live, while a muddle of technology and social complexity makes it easy to lose one’s way. This was digital disillusionment and the modern quarter-life crisis packed into an edgy, arthouse mash-up. It was Napoleon Dynamite meets High Fidelity meets Forrest Gump meets The Fresh-Prince of Bel-Air. In California. With Pharrell Williams, André 3000 (‘Pink Matter’) and Earl Sweatshirt (‘Super Rich Kids’).

It was a summer soundtrack that transported you to the pool parties of California (‘Sweet Life’), to the drunken, coke parties of super-rich kids in the Hollywood Hills, to the shores of Sierra Leone, across continental railways en route to India (‘Lost’), and beyond. It was a window back on childhood and that guilty moment when one realise why their parents were frustrated at their child’s lack of appreciation towards their drive to provide (‘Not Just Money’). It empathised with the aimless junkie who had fallen victim to drug abuse and hit rock-bottom (‘Crack Rock’). It was playeristic, but also attempted to express awe and concern for the way women’s bodies are treated (‘Pink Matter’). Even its interludes exuded visions of lazy afternoons spent languishing beside a partial shaded alfresco bar, doing absolutely nothing, while heat haze rippled off the scorched ground of your secluded hideaway (‘White (feat. John Mayer)’).

The darker side of Frank Ocean’s music, heard on songs such as ‘Novacane’, ‘Swim Good’ and ‘Pyramids’, often reminds me, visually, of the excesses seen in The Wolf of Wall Street, Spring Breakers and a dozen other smiley-yet-seedy films about drugs, sex and sleaze. This kind of lifestyle has been glamorised hugely by films and plenty of modern music, from The Weeknd and ASAP Rocky to Nicki Minaj and Rihanna. But, through Ocean’s lens of retro futurism and his sublime vocal expression, his darker songs come off with the wily charm of Cee-Lo, circa Gnarls Barkley, and John Legend. And they are not without purpose.

Everyone has a vice. Most people have more than one. And that’s what comes through in Ocean’s music: whether he frequently participates in wild drug parties that leave him with a whooping hangover is beside the point. Some people really do, others wish they could, and some people couldn’t care either way because the presentation of fame and excess has become de rigueur in our modern, entertainment-driven world. But while a lot of artists and celebrities tend to pass off the MTV lifestyle as “normal” behaviour for any money-loving celebrity, Ocean is aware that everything takes its toll, which is a strong part of Channel Orange’s subtext. The singer’s decision to pull out of the public eye after touring his first album underlines his own disillusionment with fame.

But that wasn’t all. Channel Orange was filled with romance (‘Lost’), promiscuous, primal urges (‘Monks’), and melancholy (‘Bad Religion’), too. I remember returning home on my usual weekly commute, rising up through my hometown’s Tube station and being struck by the instrumental and lyrical brilliance of ‘Super Rich Kids’. I remember drinking beers on a wide patch of grass on London’s south bank, one hot summer’s day, with a high school buddy of mine, gazing out at the gigantic Ferris wheel towering just meters away from us, while ‘Sweet Life’ blared out of my smartphone. I remember walking home with a heavy heart, wondering what I was doing with my life, while listening to ‘Bad Religion’ and ‘Forrest Gump’. I remember listening to ‘Pyramids’ and thinking about all the late nights I’ve lost, just endlessly surfing, consuming media and information, when I really should have been asleep.

This was Channel Orange, an open-ended album that tickled your nostalgia gland while making you feel like you weren’t alone in your daily confusion, disillusionment or self-doubt in today’s high-speed world.

Both Nostalgia, Ultra and Channel Orange were a rabbit hole of emotions that got deeper and deeper the with each listen: from losing and regaining one’s creative spark (‘Dust’), to finding comfort in cars, ancient mythologies and classic video games, to craving sexual satisfaction (‘Nature Feels’).

The music of Frank Ocean has been comforting, motivating and inspiring so many. And, once it connects with you, it’s not hard to see why. The life of this extraordinary artist took a fresh turn this year with the release of Endless, a softly striking visual album, and the true follow-up to his debut album, Blonde.

I listened to both albums via Apple Music on the day of their respective digital releases – though it is only recently that I have solidified my thoughts on it into some critical thoughts. Blonde is fantastic album that continues Ocean’s mastery of the retro future sound. But it’s not 2016’s Channel Orange. What form it will take alongside this year’s tidal wave of top-notch release, and how I’ll remember it in future, is still to be determined. But, before 2016 disappears into the distance past, I wanted to praise Frank Ocean for giving us soundtracks to help us through the malaise that is modern life.

Image: Island Def Jam Music Group/PR