“The core message of my music is to encourage people to think differently about their relationships. Not just romantic relationships, but as people, period.” As Frank Ocean prepares to drop 'Boys Don't Cry,' we look back to 2012, and the calm before...
Frank Ocean slopes into the lobby of The Kensington Hotel, a casual couple of hours late for his first ever UK interview. Dressed in a navy blue Supreme bobble hat, Supreme Snow White Oxford Shirt, and carrying a backpack, he is exceptionally handsome and very, very sure of himself. The recently departed member of Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All struck gold last year flying solo, and is currently riding high on the wave of fame. His debut mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra, released in February 2011, met with critical acclaim, while his follow up singles "Novacane" and "Swim Good" landed him pay checks equal to those earned by R&B royalty. Today, each and every one of his shows sells out in minutes. Earlier this year, Frank was awarded second place in the BBC's Sound Of 2012 Poll, cementing his position as one of the most sought after singer/songwriters in the world right now. With his much-anticipated debut due this spring, Frank is set to go stratospheric.
Fresh from a prolonged period in the studio, writing and recording with Jay-Z, Kanye West, and Beyoncé, this Def Jam-scouted, Atlantic Records-signed artist could be many things; but arrogant and egotistical he most definitely is not. Frank is oblivious to the effect his presence has upon those he graces with his company, he commands attention without assuming authority. Statuesque and kind faced, something vulnerable lies beneath his deep brown eyes. Despite his snowballing fame, Frank has conducted very few interviews to date. Choosing to turn down magazine covers, broadsheet features and television shows, reports of the singer being shy and introverted soon surfaced. When questioned about his confidence, the 24-year-old retorts, "I'm not shy. As you imagine I get asked that question a lot. I might be forming my answer over time, but I think it's more about instinct. It seems healthier to be a little more reclusive, I rely heavily on my art form and letting that speak for what I do."
Frank's journey began in Louisiana, New Orleans. Born Christopher Breaux in 1987, he grew up with his mother and baby brother and sister. He studied English, in the hope of becoming a lawyer, but dropped out of college and took a one-way road trip to Los Angeles with his then girlfriend when he was 18. Upon arriving, he worked a number of dead-end jobs to fund his passion for music. "I worked my ass off in thirteen jobs," he recalls. "I had so many because I was always getting fired. I was always late. I would go to the studio until five in the morning, then I'd have to get up and go to work. It was tough. I sold my first song when I was nineteen to a guy called Noel Jordan, who is signed to Epic. I can't even remember the name of the song, but it was on his debut album. I always sold my songs through meeting an artist; I was a networking guru, which lets you know I'm not shy." Despite writing thousands of songs for internationally acclaimed bands and artists, Frank had never left the United States until September 24th of last year. Neither had he owned a passport.
100% focused on his future, Frank was intent on carving a path for himself since he was thirteen-years-old. He hated school, he hated math, and he hated science, but he loved psychology — something that comes through in his music. A deep-thinking man, Frank's lyrics are introspective, focused upon self-analysis, relationships, self-respect, and a higher reason for being. "The core message of my music?" he muses. "If I could encourage people to think differently about their relationships to one another and with one another, not just romantic relationships, but just as people period, then I'm doing alright."
Frank's opening lyrics to "We All Try" on Nostalgia, Ultra perfectly capture this belief. Passionately chiming, 'I believe there's heaven, I believe in war, I believe a woman's temple gives her the right to choose but baby don't abort, I believe that marriage isn't between a man and woman but between love and love…' they set a refreshing moral precedent. "I've learned that there are a lot of things that can be expressed through arrangements of words," Frank informs. "A whole load of feelings can be encapsulated. Three quarters of the time when I was writing Nostalgia, Ultra, I was in a really dark place. Creativity was still coming from a good place but emotionally I was in a rut. I remember writing songs like 'Swim Good' or 'There Will Be Tears,' I put everything into those songs and when I listen back I think, 'That's the feeling!' If I could take a photograph of the emotion, that's what I felt like."
Frank's Twitter tagline reads, "I don't know anything and neither do you." His tweets, like his music, contemplate profound and sometimes dark thoughts and issues. Demons may be an inspiration to Frank, but a wholesome creativity also drives this gentle giant's reason for being. "My creativity comes from a really pure place," he confirms. "I'm grateful for that. I feel connected and at a higher level of consciousness when I'm being creative."
Surrounding himself with good people, Frank has mastered the secret formula behind multi-million dollar success. The self-assurance and charisma he exudes onstage is a gift and his voice is sexy as hell. Managed by the same team as Odd Future, Frank has every intention of returning to the twelve-man strong LA rap collective and continuing the chaos stirred up by Hodgy and Tyler, who he counts amongst his closet friends. Discussing the group's dynamic, Frank says, "We're all individuals. Whether someone's singing, holding up a poster in front of a turntable, hurling themselves into the crowd, or even being calm, everyone has their own persona and I found mine was there already with my voice. I didn't have to fit in. I just had to get up there and be myself. I'll definitely play with them again," he continues. "We'll probably do a couple of records together and I'll be at Coachella this year too."
Famously turning down the opportunity to work on an album with Kanye West, Frank relishes integrity when it comes to his creativity. He recently commissioned independent filmmakers High 5 Collective to direct and produce the official music video for "Thinking Bout You." Regardless of kudos or status, Frank's approach to the blinged out, sexed up business of R&B is to neither hate the player nor the game, but to stay focused on himself. He wears sharp suits on stage, accessorized with a red and white bandana. He keeps his eyes down, doesn't smile for photos, and chooses not to party — he spent his last birthday rock-climbing with his family. "I know how to have a good time when I get there," he states deadpan, "but I never get there. I'm pretty random. I take classes, I like kung fu… I'm really good at Soul Calibur and I like swimming too."
Frank likes to take life in his stride, even when meeting music powerhouses Beyoncé and Jay-Z. "It was really early morning and I'd just heard my record on the radio," he recalls. "I'd never heard one of my tracks played before. Immediately after, Clancy, my manager called and said, 'Jay-Z just called. He wants you to go to New York to work with Beyoncé.' Since then I've worked with Jay a couple of times. He's really cool and super talented. Beyoncé, she's cool and things are chilled and then she goes and starts singing. It's like, 'Oh shit, you're Beyoncé!' With Jay-Z, it was intimidating for like 90 seconds, I think he was intentionally making me feel that way, then he kind of eased up and it was awesome. He gave me Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child DVD as a gift when I arrived."
Frank describes his talent as a blessing, his mother as his hero and the best piece of advice he has ever been given as, "Pay your taxes." Musing on tomorrow he glances skywards, lowers his voice and ends the interview poignantly. "For me success lies in being able to create music for as long as I can, and being healthy enough and having the resources to do so. I'd like to leave something behind that lasts longer than my finite life, so my family can be wealthy off my work." He checks himself suddenly, before adding with a smile. "Shit that got deep, for two minutes that got real deep..." Then off he walks, just an ordinary Southern boy with an extraordinary talent for writing songs.
Text Milly McMahon
Photography Todd Cole