Why Frank Ocean Matters

If you were on Facebook last Monday, July 9, you probably heard something about Frank Ocean’s Channel ORANGE—someone scrobbling late at night, or maybe a cryptic lyric posted. Same thing goes for Twitter–any social network in fact. Or any music blog. Or CNN. Basically if you had your computer open, you saw some message announcing that channel ORANGE was here, and so was Frank Ocean. Monday marked the true genesis of Frank Ocean as major recording artist.

In 2005, Frank Ocean—then Christopher Breaux—packed his bags and with $1,200 in cash drove to Los Angeles from the Katrina-ravaged New Orleans. He was looking to distance himself both from the devastation of the hurricane and from emotional troubles. The heartbreak, though, he would have to bear with him across the country.

The beginnings of his career in the music business were painfully slow. For the most part he has little to show for his first years among the biggest names in the recording industry, spending the time honing his skills and making the necessary connections. Those connections brought him a recording contract with the hip hop powerhouse Def Jam Recordings, but he still struggled. His relationship with the label was tenuous at best, with Ocean staying in the background and writing songs for the likes of Justin Bieber and Brandy. He was, sadly, wading in the throes of anonymity.

Kevin Scanlon for The New York Times

The same year he signed to Def Jam, 2009, was also when he joined the notorious hip hop collective Odd Future Wolf Gang (OF, OFWGKTA). No one would have guessed that latter would provide Ocean’s path to stardom, yet they did. The rise of Odd Future directly facilitated the success of Frank Ocean as we know it—and the line is easy to draw. OF “broke out,” so to say, in early February with the release of Tyler, the Creator’s “Yonkers.” The gross out video and bizarro lyrics got Odd Future a spot on the indie American Bandstand that is Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. The crew then, sans Frank Ocean, performed on February 16, 2011.

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On February 18, 2011, Frank Ocean released Nostalgia, ULTRA on his tumblr. It was a musical revelation, but it took a while to get noticed. He got his Wikipedia page on February 25, but it redirected to OFWGKTA. His first Pitchfork review came on March 4. The album achieved widespread critical acclaim, entirely independent of Def Jam. He wrote on Twitter:




Much of the attention came from his juxtaposition with the only recently phenomenal Odd Future group. Comparisons were instantly drawn thematically between Tyler, the Creator’s ruthless vitriol and Ocean’s passive sadness. The Guardian wrote: “The album is personal, but it is also political. If Odd Future’s frequent use of the word “faggot” unsettled liberal stomachs, Ocean was brave enough to stand alone once more, declaring on ‘We All Try’: ‘I believe that marriage isn’t between a man and woman, but between love and love.’” But his sound, a dreamy combination of hip hop and r&b shined through and got the music world to take notice. Like Ocean’s place within Odd Future and the album itself, his sound was his alone.

And it was his soulful singing that raised him in the ranks of music’s top contributors. Kanye West heard the mixtape and invited Ocean to the Watch the Throne recording sessions. Through Jay-Z, Ocean wrote a song for Beyoncé’s 4. That came out in June 24, but the coup came with the August release of Watch the Throne. On one of the most hotly anticipated hip hop albums of all time, a pairing of the two most notable voices in 21st century hip hop, the first voice millions of listeners heard was that of Frank Ocean, crooning on the standout “No Church in the Wild.” He is also heavily featured in the track “Made in America,” essentially bookending the album.

While his soaring voice picked up plays courtesy of Jay-Z & Kanye West, as well as becoming the go-to song for movie trailers everywhere, Frank Ocean was picking up traction online, releasing songs via his tumblr page and making notable tour appearances. Def Jam was rumored to be prepping an EP release of Nostalgia, ULTRA tracks, which fell through. No matter. Before his new album was even announced, he had booked late-hour slots at Coachella and Lollapalooza. A firestorm of positive press, then, began with the confirmation that the mysterious Channel ORANGE project Ocean had alluded to. The album’s epic centerpiece, “Pyramids” was released, and Def Jam began hosting listening parties for music critics, who had nothing but effusive praise for the PBR&B album of love songs (think Drive mixed with D’Angelo).

“Pyramids” changed the game. People were paying attention to Frank Ocean’s every move, and from the spectacular movements of “Pyramids,” people began to sense that Channel ORANGE would be an immaculate debut. It is a triumph of 21st century songwriting, weaving hooks, rhythms, and lyrics together into an epic track that has no problem dismantling its own beauty and defying description.

Ocean, however, was still under pressure—but not for his music. Media outlets such as the BBC had begun questioning certain aspects the lyrics of his work. Though normally rather private, Ocean made the decision to post a draft of his album’s liner notes, which to everyone’s surprise included an intimate confessional concerning his relationship and love for a man he met when he was 19. It was an extraordinary move, and the plain-spoken sharing of Ocean’s emotional turmoil garnered enormous praise. With a tumblr post, Frank Ocean became the first major R&B artist, a genre known for womanizing, to be openly gay. Not to mention, he was a member of the oft-slurring Odd Future Wolf Gang.

The gamble, however, paid off. He received death threats and homophobic responses on Twitter, but he still received support from his Odd Future members and other major recording artist. Russell Simmons, Def Jam co-founder, praised his “courage and honesty.” And though the talent of his music still shone through, the stakes were raised for his release. As the New York Times reported, the sales of Channel ORANGE would be seen as something of a litmus test, considering about a decade ago being an open R&B singer would be career suicide.

With that on his back, Frank Ocean made his television appearance on Jimmy Fallon, almost a year and a half after his Odd Future crew-mates. He sang “Bad Religion,” a song whose interpretation would be heavily informed by his admission not a week earlier. By all accounts, he succeeded, displaying his talent and warmth to a national audience.

The performance was timed with the announcement that Channel ORANGE would be released a week early on iTunes, right after the performance aired. He began trending on Twitter, worldwide—not just “channel orange” and “Frank Ocean,” but also the title of his confessional love song “Bad Religion.” To top off the rush to hear this potentially groundbreaking album, in classic Frank Ocean style, he posted a link to a full stream of the 56 minute release on his tumblr with the humble note “Enjoy.” The praise followed.

The release has been huge. His took under two hours to reach near the top of the iTunes charts. Right now, Billboard is predicting the album could end up at the number two spot on the charts, with somewhere over the 100,000 sales number—nearly all from the iTunes store. This coming after initial forecasts placed it among Odd Future’s previous major releases, between 40,000 and 50,000.

Ocean’s story is a triumph for musicians everywhere. His career is already legendary. He is, in the words of a profile, “creating his own gravity”—emotionally a deep, grave person and musically a rising powerhouse.

He lingered in obscurity for years under the traditional recording system, and his big break came from the enigmatic hype around Odd Future. This crew, a bunch of vulgar hip hop kids (Ocean is a couple years older than any other member), allowed Ocean to reach recognition as an artist. Serving as a big brother to many of them—including the definitionally enigmatic Earl Sweatshirt, who appears on the Channel ORANGE track “Super Rich Kids”—they lifted him up and around the traditional structures of the recording industry. Even when making his Def Jam debut, Ocean recorded at home. Intimate, personal recordings result.

His gift carried him through his difficulties. He is an introvert, simultaneously looking for recognition for his art but not partaking in the somewhat gimmicky OF antics, and refusing—against Def Jam’s wishes—to put his name on his debut, top 5 album. His emotional distress, bursting forth from his voice demanded attention, regardless of crew, sexual orientation, or fame. With his emergence as a force in music, he has ushered in a new era.

The beauty of Channel ORANGE, ultimately, is that it looks both inward and forward—forward to even greater things for this groundbreaking artist.

Purchase Channel ORANGE on iTunes.



Second image and information courtesy of The New York Times

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