RESPECT. Online Exclusive: “Success Is Certain” – Elliott Wilson Interviews Frank Ocean

He’s the singer/songwriter who emerged this year to be the one everyone’s watching. Frank Ocean’s free mixtape catapulted him to your consciousness, and now he wants to stay there. It’s deeper than R&B.

Words by Elliott Wilson

Images by Nabil Elderkin

Mr. Ocean stopped by the otolaryngologist’s office this morning. The most embraced singer in the hip-hop community wanted to make extra sure that the long hours in the studio working on his upcoming album hadn’t damaged his voice. The man behind the acclaimed mixtape of the year, Nostalgia, Ultra, is giddy as he shows me an x-ray of his throat. The doc gave him a clean bill of health, and now Lonny Breaux can continue his journey.

Mr. Ocean also got a tattoo removed today, as evidenced by the big bandage sticking out from under his gray T-shirt, on the left side of his chest. Yup, this Nawlins native is a tad eccentric. But hey, he’d have to be in order to be a member of the rambunctious force known as Odd Future. This interview took place at Platinum Studios in Cali, during a recording session of OF front man Tyler The Creator, who often interrupted things to crack jokes about BET and to lament the fact that he’s still nursing a broken foot.

Yup, it’s a family affair as husband-and-wife management duo Christian and Kelly Clancy hold court, and the somewhat shy and guarded vocalist opens up about his life. Like Tyler, Ocean is not a fan of being a part of something like an interview, where he doesn’t have complete creative control over how it turns out. After attempting to answer my initial questions with typed answers on his computer, I advised dude to counter-record our convo on his iPhone for evidence of any misquotes. Here’s hoping I don’t fuck this up.

RESPECT.: The shoot to this story looks like it’s gonna be pretty interesting.

FRANK OCEAN: I was always saying that if ever I was allowed to make a whole lot of money in this business, or any other business for that matter, I would move to an island that I either have a long-term lease on or that I’d own. I’d only wear short shorts and diamonds the whole time I’m there. Not too short, just a bit above the knee, you know. But I took that fantasy and made a photo shoot out of it, and that’s what we did with you guys.

And you’re real comfortable with the photographer we chose.

Yeah, I worked with Nabil [Elderkin] mostly, before my music got popular or whatever. He was somebody I always wanted to work with, and when I got the opportunity to work with him, the chemistry was like, if it’s not broke, don’t fix it. He’s a photographer, and he directed “Novacane,” and we just wrapped up “Swim Good.” We’ll be putting out that song, and I actually kind of threw a tantrum during it. Compared to almost anybody, my tantrums are pretty monotone, but I like working with people I trust, and I feel like that makes building a network of people worth it.

Speaking of tantrums, how did you connect with Tyler and those crazy Odd Future dudes?

You know, I don’t even know. Obviously, as you might expect, I’ve been asked that a couple times. And the general answer is, you know, friends—people I befriended. Probably the most intoxicating part of a family like this, a movement like OF, is it does encourage individual expression without a guard. In these days and times, that’s something that a large portion of the youth can or would want to be a part of. You know, they wanna be a part of something that says, “Fuck everything.” 

Was your mentality always like that growing up in New Orleans and eventually landing a deal with Def Jam? What was your mind state during that time?

I was writing a lot. It was in my head, but doing a deal with a major wasn’t at the front of my brain. I was really focused on sharpening my craft. I was behind the scenes. I was becoming comfortable, too. I wasn’t becoming lazy, because I was working as hard as I’ve ever worked in my life, but I was lazy on the idea of being an artist, and when it came up, it was like, Oh, shit. Yeah, I’ll do that. One could say that I didn’t lose faith in my skills, but I lost sight of the goals I had when I first came out here to California.

So you grew up in New Orleans, and the big thing was that you wanted to get to California and get into the business?

No, the initial thing was that I was going to school and recording in New Orleans, and then a storm came through and hit the city pretty bad.

Oh, Katrina?

Yeah, yeah. The studio got looted, so I couldn’t record. The school got flooded, so I couldn’t go to school there. I had to go to school in Lafayette, which is a much smaller town than New Orleans, and I was miserable because I wasn’t working. When recording was out of the equation, I was like, “I’m done, ’cause it’s not really what I want.” But initially, the plan was to come out to L.A. for six weeks to record some material I’d written already.

How did you eventually get the deal with Def Jam?

Well, Tricky [Stewart] had just gotten a position there, and he was like, “I think you’re special.” I was so nonchalant about it, because I think, as a songwriter, when you get on that side of it, it disillusions becoming a recording artist a little. It rubs a little bit of the makeup off the face. 

So once you signed, you weren’t as elated as one might think?

Right. But at the time that I signed, I did still think, I’m gonna do this, that and the third. I had strategies all lined up, release schedules, and here’s how we’re gonna put the show together, and this is what we’re gonna do to create a buzz and make sure people are there. Months and months went on, and none of those ideas or strategies were being funded, and I was just like, Fuck—studio wasn’t funded, and a bunch of things. And it disappointed me, but at the same time, my nature is like, “It’s gonna get done no matter what. No matter who jumps off the train, I’m gonna get it.”

So that’s how Nostalgia came about?

Yeah, that’s Nostalgia. Once I started writing in March 2010—March to May, maybe, I was writing, and all throughout, trying to lock down studios to record this shit. I had contact with Tricky, ’cause Tricky was my guy there. He was the one who signed me, and you know, all I kept getting was the fucking runaround, you know? I mean, me and Tricky talked about it, we’re cool, you know, but if we are talking about the past, that’s what happened.

So if they were paying attention, they should have known you were making this incredible record?

Yeah! I didn’t know how special it was—I mean, I knew it was good because I know I’m good, and I know people who are good often know they are good at something, and that’s fine. I mean, you don’t know how many songs I wrote.

Okay, so you cut it down…

Like, for Nostalgia, I wrote a pretty modest number of songs. But even before, I’m just saying I was creating songs on such a regular basis. This was the first time I was like, “Pick these that I like, and I’m gonna finish these and add anything that comes to mind to make them like perfect in my eyes.” An old friend of mine told me that songs you don’t finish—they just end up in an interesting place or they don’t. I would work on these songs until they were in an interesting place, and it was the first time I did that, sequencing it, interludes, mixing the record. I had no idea that people would connect.
I didn’t do any promotion, any lead-up. And it was intentional.

Still, it seemed like as soon you dropped Nostalgia, it took off.

I put Nostalgia out on February 16. First day it had, like, 60 downloads or something. Next day, it was tripled. After that, it was going crazy. Still, you grow up on the Internet and you’re like, “A’ight, that’s cool, but what does it really mean?” Like, are they gonna care a month from now? Or are they downloading it just because there’s so much heat on my guys? Somebody could pull the rug out from underneath real quick. But it hasn’t been pulled yet.

When did it really click for you that this project was going to jump-start your career? Was it feedback from respected peers?

That meant a lot to me. For someone like Jay-Z to say, “Oh, I really like your shit.” Beyoncé or Puff or Lil Wayne, who is one of my favorite MCs, these are people who I really respect. It’s not about the money I’ll make this year. It’s not about as soon as I got offers for five, ten, fifteen thousand to go do shows. It’s about getting a show ready and really doin’ a show right, and doin’ your best to just give your best.

I’m not about to go and do every feature that comes forward. I think people in the urban music scene place too much of a premium on collaborations to begin with. That’s the first thing. And second, I think that people shouldn’t be on magazines that they wouldn’t read and shouldn’t really feature on songs that they wouldn’t listen to if they weren’t on it.

So you want to take a different path and keep things fresh?

Exactly. It’s like a new car smell still in the business for me. Even after I spoke about being a little jaded at first on the whole recording artist idea, and the pursuit of that. I think some of the jaded shit has worn off, ’cause I’m in a different place, and it’s been replaced by this certain optimism.

You’re being recognized now, which probably fuels more art.

It does, it does. Like when I wrote the second album, which I’m finishing up now, trying to tie up all the loose ends, but it’s written already. There was an interesting mind frame I had when I was writing it that was different from when I was writing Nostalgia. I felt more confident. I wrote this project down. I’m a Jay-Z enthusiast, and that contributed to me learning how to write in my head, and that’s what I did for Nostalgia. The new album I wrote all on a laptop, all in a standard font.

Everyone is excited about your two appearances on Watch The Throne. How’d that come about?

Well, I worked with Jay first on some of his solo stuff. When I walked in the studio for the first time, he was the intimidating Jay at first. Then he allowed me to breathe, but it was cool, though. We worked on a song that he had a verse already written for. He had an idea, and he gave me this DVD of Jean-Michel Basquiat, The Radiant Child, which I hadn’t seen yet. It kind of had to do with the concept of the song. He rapped his verse, which was epic as fuck.

Immediately I got an idea. So I wrote out the hook, and when I was singing it, Jay came in the booth. He was like, “Your phrasing, low key, sounds like Sting.” I was doing some experimental things with accenting, and from there we started talking briefly about where the song was going. I had finished writing my verse, but it was lyrical, so it had to be precise. I was just making sure my bases were covered. Then Beyoncé came in, so I’m singing these takes in front of her. Swizz Beatz came through, and everybody listened to it finished right there. I wrapped it up, and it got a rave review from the room—it was a real cool moment.

So that got you a callback for WTT?

Yeah, I was taking a break off the East Coast run with OF, and I got asked to come back when they were working on Watch The Throne at the Mercer [Hotel]. I felt like I was there for 18 hours, even though I was really only there for a short time. I tried to get all the writing done I could in the space, and they both [Hov and Kanye] were there the whole time. I had just got a cut back for the “Novacane” video, so I played it for them. It was one of the cooler moments I’d had with them so far.

Did they have ideas about what songs they wanted you to enhance?

It was really collaborative, so we just went through beats. Kanye had a few he was excited about and really wanted to play. “Church in the Wild” had such a legit flow. We didn’t really talk about themes, but I laid out some song concepts and hooks. They built the songs from the hooks. I was there when Jay cut his verse for “Made” and when Kanye was writing “Church.” The one that I thought was on the fence was the “Sweet Baby Jesus” line, but that turned out to be the one that everyone liked. I really liked both. Kanye and Jay had a big impact on me, so being able to work on a project like that is as much a part of the dream as anything else. 

How do you categorize yourself? I know you’re not too comfortable with the R&B label.

I just think R&B is so racial. I’m going to borrow a line from Duke Ellington and say it’s “beyond category.” Pharrell has told me to say I’m a singer/songwriter, because that’s what I really am. I don’t want to step off into the “Don’t label me because I’m black” realm, but I would say any artist that is killing it right now has long since abandoned genre and expanded past certain labels. 

Do you feel pressure with the next album? Are you concerned about a “sophomore jinx” or the perception that you can’t top Nostalgia?

Damn, you just introduced that into my conscience. The phrase “sophomore jinx” hadn’t even come into my head. You just inspired an additional verse, or definitely interlude fodder. There’s definitely pressure on this album. Anyone who has something invested in this album has added to the pressure. But I’m staying true to the same thing that made me successful. I made it to the specifications of exactly what I wanted to hear. I know some people who complain about artists’ creative freedom, but those people are stupid as fuck. Both projects so far have had creative freedom. If people don’t really like my shit, they just don’t like my shit. It’s nobody’s fault, you just don’t really fuck with me. That’s just how it is.