SOUND VS. STYLE: FRANK OCEAN
by Jeremy Danté
the concept of style is not one that can be contained in design, through photography or even speech. style transcends far beyond the realm of anything we can see & often times into what we feel. so is the case of christopher breaux, more widely known musically as frank ocean. i remember getting a text message one february evening from evan rogers. he told me about this artist & a mixtape titled “nostalgia, ultra”. evan & myself began to converse as he prefaced the record while suggesting a couple choice tracks from the digitally released project. the style component associated with frank ocean was best introduced on this body of work, which seen 14 tracks circling the internet & musical blogosphere, released on frank’s own tumblr page. songs like, “novacane” were heard on the radio as ocean’s lyrical genius spoke of raw, some times gritty emotions of our new creative generation- so it seemed. the element of nostalgia was well represented on this project through songs like “swim good” & “we all try”- these tracks brought about questions of existence, transcendence & reaching your dreams through emotional depth. but no record on this project was quite as captivating to me as, “american wedding”.
lyrically, the song referenced the disposability of american matrimony. polygamous, arranged marriages were also discussed in the song’s lyrics, cited as “unamerican” with an air of sarcasm. explored; resonated was the sense that love, in the form of matrimony, has been destroyed & redefined by the thought that you can simply get this commitment annulled. american love is framed as being temporary on the record. all against a sample of “hotel california”, the vocal arrangement that was kept simple was perfectly accentuated by the iconic eagles’ track. the eagles’ themselves thought it necessary to take action against ocean, being that he used the original studio track on the record, as well as the original melody, while flipping the script lyrically to support his sonic message. because of this legal action & threats to sue before doing so, frank was unable to perform this record in his live shows which promoted ‘ultra‘ throughout northern america & europe. as a part of odd future, a rap grouping popularly lead by tyler the creator, frank was able to muster up connections after moving to los angeles following the destruction of hurricane katrina of his hometown in new orleans. after the release of ‘ultra’ & following reception of critical acclaim, rapper kanye west allowed ocean the opportunity to become a writer on the platinum selling rap/collaborative project, between west & fellow MC jay-z, titled “watch the throne”. ocean’s work on this project allowed him to transcend even further into the mainstream musical stratosphere, which soon seen frank writing for beyonce, the wife of jay-z. as a clear standout track on beyonce’s album, “4”, the ocean penned track, “i miss you” is one that resonates with a much needed emotional connectivity, not often felt through beyonce’s prior work. combined with the work frank had done with kanye west, jay-z & now beyonce, he continued collecting content for what would become his debut studio album. reportedly, kanye west offered to contribute to frank’s debut album, but ocean declined the offer, saying “…i kind of want to do this without you. i kind of want to do it on my own.” through his own independent work, before meeting west, “nostalgia, ultra” was hailed by rolling stone as the 24th best album of the year while complex magazine rated it as the 4th best of that year.
after selected tracks from the “nostalgia, ultra” were re-released by ocean’s label def jam, as an EP- the buzz of the project continued to flourish. the track, “novacane” debuted with minimal but noted success coming in at #82 on billboard’s hot 100, reaching #17 on billboard’s hot R&B/hip-hop songs chart & reaching #59 on billboard’s radio songs chart for airplay. reportedly, ocean had become frustrated with def jam for their lack of support with “nostalgia, ultra”, he reacted by releasing the project online for free, which ultimately allowed a lane to be created for him as an artist in demand. through negotiations, the relationship with ocean & the label were repaired with the debut album, titled “channel orange” being scheduled for a july 17th release. last week, outside of the politics with the label, in conjunction with the hype that has ensued ocean’s career & talent, a statement was released in the same format his mixtape was released. taking again to his tumblr page to reach out to his growing digital fan base, frank addressed speculation about some of his songs noting a romance with a man. i wont spend time regurgitating the letter, i wont go on to say what this means for hip-hop, for R&B or urban sound all together. that discussion has been had on every other site, every news outlet & every musical commentary entity around the globe by now. i want to talk about the music.
amidst the firestorm of media coverage surrounding his statement about his experience with love; i thought a lot about the concept of categorization. as twitter, tumblr & facebook pages became bombarded by everything frank ocean- i started to see people buzzing about an early release date on itunes, one week before the release of frank’s album. i scrambled for my iphone to purchase from itunes as fast as i could. i had already heard the track, “thinking about you” as it seemed to be intended for roc nation artist, bridget kelly & was included on her mixtape from last year, titled as “thinking about forever”. ocean’s own demo version has been circling the internet for a while now & i was surprised to see that included in the album track listing. with a leak by ocean from his soundcloud profile late last week, i was able to hear the track, “sweet life” which boasts production from pharrell & feels like a modern day stevie wonder record. through other connections, i was able to hear another track, “pyramid” this past weekend, before the albums release date. as sweet, light & symbollically driven as “sweet life” is, it lacked that sense of emotional connectivity that i had found with “american wedding” or “i miss you”. i continued to search for greatness. searing beats, hypnotic production elements and lyrical references to what i interpret as prostitution & pimping is what i found with “pyramids”. this record was prefaced & praised by my musical connect for it’s symbollism, as well as john mayer’s guitar feature towards the close of the record. the fusion of hip-hop confidence & jazz cool was translated perfectly on this record, but still- i was looking for a love song.
there is a certain way that frank writes. there is an awkwardness to his sound, but not awkward in the way of being off-putting, awkward as being vividly humanized, normal & in ways vulnerable. as i fought with my itunes account to purchase the album, frank’s first televised performance was being broadcast across the united states from the jimmy fallon show. that performance? “bad religion”. in opting to break my fashion content to talk about music, there is a certain level of importance i find in my exchange of thoughts or dialogue about artists & the way they make us feel. ocean’s performance was vocally flawless, emotional with a relaxed stage presence. a beautiful symphonic climax & frank, ending the love song with a smile. there is a way that frank writes a love song that is so different than others, it’s left for interpretation by the listener. it’s not forceful, but still heart wrenching. it’s real. from the mixtape to the mainstream, from novacane to bad religion- the layering of emotional connectivity that resonates with me, through the work of frank ocean, is truly unprecedented. in today’s musical game, frank ocean is necessary. not because he can admit to his love for another man, not because he has celebrity co-signs, not because he is handsome- but because he allows us feel as he feels. i continue to look for reflections of myself through sound & style; this track “bad religion” resonates with me in my very personal experiences of unrequited love. “it’s a bad religion, to be in love with someone who could never love you.” reflective, personal & emotionally aware. the production, the writing- the use of faceless cover art. there is a rekindling of creativity happening in music. frank ocean is leading that wave. i won’t dissect the album too heavily, i want you to listen & interpret it for yourself. i wanted to allow myself the opportunity to articulate as best i can, about the value of frank ocean- not only to me, but to you as my audience. frank ocean just saved R&B.
this is an installment of the sound vs. style music feature series
click here to view past artists featured