By Claire Jackson

The impact Frank Ocean has had on the music industry and how music is streamed and accessed is a large one. While he is a man of little words publicly, his actions and talent speak for themselves and demand attention from all. Through his discography, Frank Ocean deconstructs heteronormativity while crossing musical genres, showing true vulnerability through lyrics and his skills as a masterful storyteller. 

Early Life

Frank Ocean, born Christopher Edwin Breaux, was born on October 28, 1987, in Long Beach, California. At an early age, the family moved to New Orleans, Louisiana, where he grew up. Ocean was raised by his mother, Katonya, and alongside his younger brother, Ryan, who he often cites as one of his biggest inspirations and supporters. Ryan tragically passed away in a car crash in mid 2020 at the age of 18. Frank Ocean was exposed to the New Orleans Black music scene, especially in the jazz genre, as well as his mother’s R&B CDs, which he later cites as great influences on his music styles.

Ryan and Frank after a show on his "California Live" Tour in 2013.
Ryan and Frank in 2014.

Ocean graduated from high school in 2005, and enrolled in the University of New Orleans as an English major. However, that year, Hurricane Katrina hit the region and devastated the area, destroying his home and his makeshift recording studio. He was also looted, which then caused him to put a pause on his educational pursuits and begin to take music more seriously.

Early Career

With little to no money to his name or in his pocket, Ocean moved to Los Angeles in 2006. He only intended to stay for a short visit, but when he began to create more and more connections in the LA music scene, he stayed and became an employee processing insurance claims. Ocean gained a songwriting deal and is early credited with contributions to songs such as “Bigger” by Justin Bieber and “I Miss You” by Beyoncé.

In 2008, Frank Ocean also met the Los Angeles hip-hop collective Odd Future (otherwise stylized as OFWGKTA.) Led by rapper Tyler, The Creator and including other notable members such as Earl Sweatshirt, Syd the Kid, and Jasper Dolphin, Odd Future was a group that was known to push boundaries and make a rambunctious name for themselves. After a collection of successful mixtapes and albums with Odd Future, Ocean signed a contract with Def Jam as a solo artist with the help of Tricky Stewart, a producer with the label. This was also the same year he officially changed his name to Christopher Francis Ocean, believing that the new name “would look better on magazine covers.”

Career

In 2011, Ocean released his first solo mixtape titled nostalgia, ULTRA with the lead singles being “Novacane” and “Swim Good.” The songs on the tape were released for free download on his Tumblr.com blog, something Def Jam did not know about. For reference, Tumblr is often Ocean’s main form of social media, and his overall online presence is often called elusive, secretive, and unpredictable.

On Twitter, he announced that he had released the tape like he did due to the lack of the label’s support of his efforts. Despite the issues with his label, the tape was widely positively received, and highly critically acclaimed. The songs included many heavy samples from bands such as the Eagles, Coldplay, and MGMT, which also caused some controversy. The tape was nominated for Best international Album at the 2012 Swedish Grammys, and Pitchfork Media put it at number 35 on its list of the year’s top albums. According to Pitchfork, “Chris Breaux, who goes by Frank Ocean, is a male R&B singer with male R&B contradictions: As much as he wants to listen to his heart, he can’t completely ignore his dick,” with regard to the sensual elements in Ocean’s rhythms.

nostalgia, ULTRA, also gained praise from The Guardian, The A.V Club, Rolling Stone, Complex, and the New York Times as well as many other publications. Coming off the success of his first tape, he impressed the likes of Jay-Z and Kanye West, who (with Beyoncé’s recommendation, included his vocals on two tracks on their 2011 Album Watch the Throne. “No Church in the Wild,” one of the songs, won the 2013 Grammy for best rap/sun collaboration.

In June 2012, after reconciliation with Def Jam, Ocean dropped Pyramids, a new single, on his Tumblr blog. Also on the blog, he posted an open letter explaining his attraction towards men and women, and his reluctance to put a label on his sexuality.

Frank's sexuality as expressed in an open letter on Tumblr. Has since been deleted/privated for the time being.

To avoid any potential leaks, Ocean’s second album, channel ORANGE, was released on iTunes a week early in 2012. Within hours, it hit number 1 on the top album charts, he made it available to be streamed on his Tumblr blog. The albums accolades and acclaim include a win for best urban contemporary album at the 2013 Grammys, and comparisons to R&B legends like Prince and Stevie Wonder.

The album included more songs about romantic relationships and the difficulty navigating them, and the pronouns for his objects of affection became more vague, listeners noticed. In a genre where it is often heard of men singing solely about women and vice versa, this choice to remain vague was one that was not often heard of in this new generation of singers. There have obviously been gay and queer performers before, but the stigma in the Black community makes every career even harder to navigate once the performer comes out due to homophobia.

In 2013, Ocean confirmed he had begun work on his second studio album that would be a concept album. In 2014, he released the song “Hero” on SoundCloud, but that was all fans heard from him. About a month later, he stated the album was almost finished. Collaborators were said to be Pharrell Williams, Danger Mouse, and Tyler, The Creator to name a few.

Over the next 2 years, Ocean released snippets and songs on SoundCloud and Tumblr, but there was no more updating about the album. His social media presence began to decline more and more, and most releases were surprise drops. On his website in July 2016, he posted a photo of a library card that was labeled Boys Don’t Cry with numerous stamps, possibly implying release dates. Ryan, his brother, also posted dates on his Instagram.

On August 1, 2016, a live stream sponsored by Apple Music went live on boysdontcry.co, the visuals including Ocean playing random instruments and appearing to built a staircase. This was the precursor to his visual album Endless, which would be his last album with Def Jam under contract.

However, on August 20, 2016, a music video for the song “Nikes” was posted on his website and Apple Music page. This was the lead single for his true second studio album, Blond. The truth had been unveiled, Frank Ocean had given Def Jam what they were under the impression was his album, when it reality, it was something to appease the end of his contract he was unhappy with so he could release the album he truly wanted out independently. Blond was not submitted to the Grammys under his request, but it quickly gained even more acclaim than his last work, being ranked by Time as the best album of 2016 and Forbes estimating that Blonde earned Ocean nearly $1 million in profits after one week. Blond is certified platinum by the RIAA.

In the wake of Blond and his “hermit like behavior,” Ocean has been featured on different albums and songs, such as Calvin Harris’ Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1 and ASAP Mob’s “RAF.” He has also released more songs himself, such as “Chanel” and “Biking.” “Chanel” is a song many believe is a metaphor for his sexuality, due to the lyrics that include “my guy pretty like a girl” and “I see both sides like Chanel,” in reference to the luxury fashion brand.

Presently, Ocean does not have much of social media presence. He is extremely quiet relative to other artists and surprise releases his music, and his lack of a media presence has made him even more popular.

In the last 2 years, on Blonded radio on Apple Music, Ocean has released singles such as “Moon River,” “DHL,” “In My Room,” “Dear April,” and “Cayendo.” He was scheduled to headline the Coachella Music Festival, but due to COVID-19, the festival was postponed indefinitely. The recent passing of his brother also affected him deeply, and has extended the hiatus and furthered radio silence from the performer.

Overall, Frank Ocean is a unique character in the R&B and hip hop genres. His versatility is powerful, as he is able to rap, sing, and write independently. His sexuality and the visibility he provides about it deconstructs the toxic masculinity many of his contemporaries exude, such as ASAP Rocky and the rest of ASAP Mob and other rappers of today. He has made a name for himself without saying much, letting his talents and acclaim precede him. He has cemented himself in the genres, and leaves fans (impatiently) awaiting more.

Bibliography

Blanchon, Josephine. “Representations of Black Queer Masculinity in Contemporary Popular Music: A Close Analysis of Tyler, The Creator and Frank Ocean.” SCARAB, scarab.bates.edu/honorstheses/326/. 

 

Dhaenens, Frederik, et al. “Resistant Masculinities in Alternative R&B? Understanding Frank Ocean and The Weeknd’s Representations of Gender – Frederik Dhaenens, Sander De Ridder, 2015.” SAGE Journals, journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1367549414526730. 

 

“Frank Ocean.” Biography.com, A&E Networks Television, 11 Oct. 2019, www.biography.com/musician/frank-ocean. 

 

Lewellyn-Taylor, Benjamin. “The Free Black Artist: Frank Ocean Through a Decolonial Lens.” Taylor & Francis, www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/14769948.2019.1554329.