You’ve probably heard of Odd Future by now, but chances are you’ve heard less about Frank Ocean, the 23-year-old New Orleans native and singer/songwriter who admits he just might be the mellowest member of the raucous crew. After moving to L.A. and signing a deal with Def Jam that went nowhere fast, Ocean released his debut album, Nostalgia, Ultra, via Tumblr in February. (He prefers not to talk about the songs he’s penned for stars like John Legend and Bieber.) Over samples of The Eagles, MGMT, and Coldplay, Ocean’s smooth vocals cover the delirious turf you might expect from an Odd Future member—drugs, porn stars, absent father issues. But, please, just don’t call it R&B. Ocean simply prefers “good music.”
You’ve jokingly admitted to having the condition Synesthesia. How would that affect the way you create music? I was trying to say that my process is more about imagery than it is about anything else when I’m writing. Trying to get the imagery through the lyrics and the melody is my main focus when I’m writing any song. I’m visualizing each song as I go along, line by line, or section by section, just trying to make sure that the photograph continues, the imagery continues, and you get visuals for the whole ride.
What images do you pair with a song like “American Wedding” which covers The Eagles’ “Hotel California?” The lyrics really lay out that story pretty well, but for me that was a desert wedding, a long walk alone, a guy in his 30s with pictures and a canteen of alcohol just walking, wallowing in his sorrows, and telling his love story—that’s what I was trying to get across.
You don’t like your music to be holed into one genre, so how would you describe it to another person if you were forced to? I think it was Clive Davis who said this, I could be wrong, but: “There’s two types of music: there’s good and bad. So, just: Good Music. Most modern music that’s worth shit isn’t any one genre. That shit got played out in the 90s, now everything’s affected by everything, and we’re all affected by one another. I won’t say I listen to everything because that’s kind of impossible but I listen to a lot of music, I like a lot of music, and I don’t really think I fall smoothly into one genre. I don’t think anybody that’s making good music these days does.
So why are “Bluegrass” and “Death Metal” the labels you chose for Nostalgia,Ultra in iTunes? I was just fucking around because the genre section in the iTunes window doesn’t really matter to all the listeners that I know. You listen to what you like and it doesn’t matter what the fuck the genre says. Either you like it or you don’t like it. Nobody’s going to not listen to something because of the genre label.
There are some unique touches on the album, like the Nicole Kidman bit from Eyes Wide Shut on “Love Crimes.” Why was that added? This relates to the imagery thing. The song needed a feminine presence and I could’ve just gone the route of using a female background singer on the hook or something, but I just thought it needed a real feminine presence.
Your song content isn’t always as provocative as the rest of Odd Future’s music. Has your time spent with the group affected the way you write at all? My approach to writing has always been the same, but of course being around creative people, you’re influence to a degree. The connection between us all is obviously the creativity and the arts and shit—we’re all creative to some degree. Tyler has actually suggested a lot of new music to me since I’ve known him and I’ve listened to a lot of shit—but as far as my songwriting process, it’s remained essentially the same. You’re also the only Odd Future member signed to a major label. When you signed with Def Jam, did you worry that you would end up being shelved? I can honestly say it happened so quickly that I never had that concern. At the time, I felt confident in who I was getting involved with business wise and I had nothing but hope. I wasn’t thinking anything but positive thoughts about how things would turn out and things have turned out positively. Maybe not in the way that’s traditional—but it’s turning out alright.
Since you released the album to success on Tumblr, has Def Jam been dealing with you differently? Of course, good reception changes everything. I don’t think the answer is fully formed yet as far as exactly what the play-by-play will be, but obviously they’re there and we are in business together. Things could play out a certain way, but for now I’m just gonna continue doing what I want.
You’ve been working on your career for about five years now and suddenly you’re kinda blowing up. Does that disillusion you? It’s all about the day by day because I value my time working on music so much. I booked my first studio session with own measly $400 from washing cars and shit when I was 13-years-old and I wasn’t good. I just wasn’t good. I developed, I learned, I invested a lot. No one in my family was mentoring me musically—it was all self-driven. It takes time to hone the skill, to hone the craft, and get to a place where you just know you’re good and know that you’ve put in your 10, 000 hours and you’re ready to expose it to people.
After leaving New Orleans and landing in L.A., how did you get involved in the music scene? When I came out here I got a deal on some studio time through a friend. I was recording on my own, and I was only suppose to be out here for six weeks, but obviously I stayed a bit longer, because I was just networking and meeting people. I lived with some roommates and had some odd jobs—I was working at an insurance company, at AT&T, at Kinko’s. A couple of my family members live out here, and through some young cousins I met a lot of friends around my age, and I met Odd Future through mutual friends. It’ll be five years that I’ve been here, as of March, but I definitely came out here with the initial to plan work, be persistent, and make some money to pay my bills with odd jobs.
Word on the street is that you’re the mature Odd Future member who dresses well and eats well. I do eat Wendy’s from time to time, but I’m also a versatile human being, I’m a dynamic human being, and I’m not any one thing. But—I am probably the mellow one. If it was a political party, I’d probably be the Republican in the crew, but we all connect. If there was a venn diagram, I guess we would share a lot of ground or whatever, but yeah, I’m definitely probably that guy.
You’re very well-mannered, is that a Southern thing? You seem very laid back compared to Tyler, for example. Tyler’s probably very entertaining for you to talk to, I feel like I’m a bore sometimes. But I don’t know if it’s a Southern thing, I think it’s a probably just a family thing. I meet some rude motherfuckers in the south, I meet some rude motherfuckers in the west, I meet rude motherfuckers everywhere. But there’s something about the South, people get comfortable with you a little quicker for some reason. I don’t know why that is but at the drive through at a restaurant, they’ll make up a nickname for your within the first ten minutes of knowing you. It’s just that kind of vibe. I guess that contributes to my persona over all, I’m not sure.
How far along are you on the next album? Do we have to wait years for another release? We’re about ten songs in, it sounds superb, and I’m big on sharing stuff when it’s complete. Once it’s complete, I don’t care if it leaks or people get it or whatever, I don’t really think about stuff like that. But if it’s incomplete and people get it, I have like panic attacks and nervous breakdowns. So anybody out there thinking of leaking my music should keep that in mind, because you might lose me—Nah, I’m just kidding!