Saturday, July 31, 2021


In all honesty, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone below the age of 30 who doesn’t at least know the name Frank Ocean. At this point, the musician has built the identity of an enigmatic recluse, therefore, to shed too much light on Ocean’s life and artistic process would be to potentially go against his wishes. It’s impossible to discuss the impact and significance of his music without some consideration of his life though, so I will try an abridged version. 

Before he was Frank Ocean, he was Christopher Breaux. Raised in New Orleans, he briefly studied English at University, around which time Hurricane Katrina struck, destroying his home and recording studio.

Moving to Los Angeles not long after, Ocean initially penned songs for musicians such as Justin Beiber and John Legend, before meeting Odd Future (led by Tyler, The Creator), with whom he would later collaborate.

A meeting with Tricky Stewart got Ocean signed to Def Jam Recordings, but he felt neglected by the label. Deciding to work on his debut mixtape independently, Ocean released ‘Nostalgia, Ultra’ in 2011 for free download online. The mixtape propelled Ocean into the spotlight, with much praise being given to his songwriting and aesthetic choices. ‘Swim Good’ and ‘Novacaine’ were amongst the first examples of Ocean’s propensity for slick storytelling that deals in both tenderness and passion.

‘Swim Good’:

Off the back of the success of his mixtape, Def Jam’s support of Ocean grew. Securing a modest budget and time in the studio, Ocean quickly produced his debut album ‘Channel Orange’. The album evoked the feelings of long summer days and late summer nights – with songs that delved into material exuberance, sexual freedom, and unrequited love. Ocean’s songwriting and ability to create a strong emotional soundscape remained the strongest features of the project, but this time ‘Channel Orange’ proved a more concise and focused piece of work. Continuing his upward trajectory towards fame, Ocean made television appearances performing many of the popular tracks from the record. That doesn’t narrow it down though - ask anyone what their favourite song is from ‘Channel Orange’ and you will probably get a wide array of choices. ‘Thinkin Bout You’, the first single from the album, features flirtatious yet lovelorn lyrics, sung in Ocean’s distinct falsetto vocals.

‘Thinkin Bout You’:

‘Pyramids’ features a famous beat switch that would demonstrate the ingenuity of Ocean’s sense of song structures, something he would later develop further. It also has some killer catchy lines.


The years following ‘Channel Orange’ are perhaps the years that have most contributed to Ocean’s image as an elusive artist. A troubled, and widely reported, dispute with Def Jam restricted Ocean’s next moves, resulting in the possibility of him only making 14% revenue from the sales of his own music, and losing the rights to his song masters. There was a long wait to come for those eager to hear new music from the artist, with rumours of song titles and pushed back release dates surfacing seemingly every couple of weeks.

Eventually, around 2016, Ocean’s website was updated with a new video. The live stream video showed the inside of a white warehouse, only containing a row of building tools and a giant speaker system in the back corner. Music was looped over the picture, which later transpired to be Ocean’s next album ‘Endless’. By releasing a visual album, only available through Apple Music, Ocean fulfilled his contract to Def Jam and regained control of his music in a dignified but tactile manner. ‘Endless’ is largely forgotten in general discussions of Ocean’s work, but despite its ambient and less accessible style, it contains some of his most raw and experimental songs.

With his next project finally out in the world, it seemed like another long wait for a taste of new music. The next day, however, a music video for a fresh song called ‘Nikes’ appeared on Ocean’s website, with an announcement of pop up shows in London, Los Angeles, New York City, and Chicago accompanying it. The pop up shops sold a magazine entitled ‘Boys Don’t Cry’, which was a collaboration of photographs and writing from Ocean and a plethora of other artists. Also contained inside the magazine, was a mysterious CD. The CD was another album entirely, and when the same album appeared on streaming services, it was quickly realised that Ocean had recorded an unexpected third album, ‘Blonde’.

‘Nikes’ music video:

‘Blonde’ would go on to become career-defining for Ocean, propelling him from the public identity of a talented singer/songwriter, to that of a coveted 21st century musical icon. The praise for the album was, and continues to be, extremely positive, with many complimenting its effortless blending of several different musical genres, and the complex song structures. Ocean’s writing once again became a large focus of the discussion. A conversation with an old friend led Ocean to decide to explore his experiences growing up more, making ‘Blonde’ a deeply candid and personal project in its exploration of heartbreak, sex, regret, and isolation. It’s a dream-like and spacious album with sombre themes and topics, but it also captures the intense power of the identity and memories that form when growing up. Heavy reverb is frequently applied to the guitars and synthesizers, and Ocean’s vocals are tinged by melancholic effects, or warped entirely.

‘Self Control’ is one of the most emotionally powerful songs on the record, and became a fan favourite as time passed. It’s deeply rooted in the vulnerability of a relationship falling apart, and the longing for connection once again when it does so.

‘Self Control’:

‘Godspeed’ references religious imagery in its story of leaving a lover in a mature and thoughtful way. Transcendental organs and church-style music form the substance of instrumentation, with gospel singer Kim Burrell featured at the end.


Inevitably, speculation towards Ocean’s next project didn’t take long to reappear. The couple years following the release of ‘Blonde’ was bountiful - with Ocean dropping five loose singles through his radio station ‘Blonded’. In the last couple of years, Ocean has released songs hinting at a new project, notably ‘DHL’ and ‘In My Room’, which demonstrated his rapping skills over skeletal unusual beats. ‘Dear April’ and ‘Cayendo’ arrived some months later, initially played during DJ sets at Ocean’s Prep+ club nights. Both these songs are more stripped back acoustic renditions of Ocean’s standard melancholic love-stricken ballads.


‘In My Room’:

The sporadic release of singles, and general avoidance of any sort of public interaction or announcement has meant it has been very difficult to predict what comes next in Ocean’s career. Eager fans constantly monitor Blonded’s Instagram and Ocean’s personal Tumblr account for any sign of life, but aside from a steady flow of rumours and theories, only time will tell what to expect in the future.

-Huwen Edwards


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