Arts and Entertainment

Artist Profile: The Enigma of Frank Ocean

Frank Ocean is a unique artist—one creatively unhindered by the limits of genre and the conventions of the music industry.

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By Minseo Kim

In today’s music, artists are put into strict categories by genre. While this can be helpful for listeners looking to discover new artists similar to those whose music they already enjoy, it is also incredibly restricting for many musicians. For the sake of simplicity, most artists today stick within the boundaries of their genre, seldom venturing into alternative types of music. However, there is one musician who completely rejects this notion, defying how we perceive genre altogether: Frank Ocean.

Born in New Orleans, Ocean moved to Los Angeles after Hurricane Katrina destroyed his home and much of his recording equipment. Along with rapper Tyler, The Creator, Frank Ocean later founded hip-hop collective Odd Future in 2009. Through the group’s success, he received a record deal with Def Jam Recordings and released his debut mixtape, “Nostalgia, Ultra.” “Nostalgia, Ultra,” a stripped-down, 42-minute R&B mixtape, received mixed reviews from critics. Predominantly driven by a potpourri of pop-inspired beats with hints of blues and vocals reminiscent of 1970s soul, the album also included various covers, including renditions of Coldplay’s 2009 track “Strawberry Swing” and MGMT’s “Electric Feel.” The record was the world’s first taste of Frank Ocean and his talents, but it certainly was not the pinnacle of his artistic ability.

Just over a year after “Nostalgia, Ultra,” Frank Ocean’s debut studio album, “Channel Orange,” was released. At its core, “Channel Orange” was similar to Ocean’s mixtape in its inspiration from soul and R&B. However, “Channel Orange” felt much more expansive, adventurous, and experimental. This is best depicted in the 10-minute psychedelic trip of “Pyramids” and the string-driven gospel ballad “Bad Religion,” in which Frank Ocean contemplates faith. These tracks show a much more liberated artist—one who completely defies genre. With “Nostalgia, Ultra,” Frank Ocean was an R&B singer. After “Channel Orange,” the categorization of his music became much more vague; whereas the characterization of his music seemed obvious with his mixtape, his major-label debut was a hodgepodge of a wide variety of genres, with Ocean displaying dexterity as an artist in all of them.

After what seemed to be unanimous critical acclaim for his debut album, Frank Ocean almost completely disappeared from the public eye. After growing resentful of Def Jam and their mechanical, inorganic music release practices, he moved to London and was barely heard from. Other than a few features on albums like Kanye West’s “The Life of Pablo” and Earl Sweatshirt’s “Doris”—in addition to a demo uploaded to Ocean’s Tumblr—no public appearances were made. Various announcements were made regarding potential release dates for a second album throughout 2016, but to no avail. Then, an enigmatic live stream appeared on Frank Ocean’s website on August 1, 2016.

Throughout the following days, Ocean appeared in the video, constructing what would eventually become a spiral staircase leading to nothing. In the back of the stream played new songs which would ultimately make up “Endless,” a visual album edited down from 140 hours of video. “Endless” showed us an entirely new side of Frank: one that rejects any idea of how we may have perceived him or his music. The beautiful, minimalist ballad “Higgs” is difficult to describe. Similar to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” it doesn’t exclusively evoke a specific emotion. It can be a song of sorrow, celebration, or disappointment. This interpretability showed Ocean’s true artistic skill and cemented his position as one of the most influential artists of our generation—if “Channel Orange” hadn’t already done so. With the release of “Endless,” the question of who Frank Ocean is again arose. Is he a videographer? A visual artist? A singer? A producer?

Just one day after “Endless” was published, Ocean’s true sophomore LP, “Blonde,” was released. With his first three projects, Frank Ocean had been restricted by his record label and contract. But by independently releasing “Blonde,” he was free. And once again, our notions of who Frank Ocean is were disrupted. It truly is difficult to categorize his second studio album into any genre. “Ivy,” a rock power ballad about love, is reminiscent of early-2000s rock. “Nights,” a five-minute song split into two with a transition remarkably fluid and seamless, almost constitutes rap; it’s a calm, rhythmic track over a simple yet profound beat. But, as it so often is with Frank Ocean, trying to fit him and his music into a certain category proves useless.

Yet, his individuality is not restricted to just his music. Ocean came out as a member of the LGBT community in 2012 with a letter he uploaded to Tumblr, in which he revealed that his first love was a man. In addition to becoming a voice for the LGBT community, his announcement was notable because it showed a unique sense of honesty and transparency with fans, something that has been shown throughout the entirety of his career. He rejects any and all pretense, and despite his vast skill and the equally widespread acclaim he has received for it, Frank Ocean has remained and remains humble. He has only given a handful of interviews in his career, and he made his Instagram account viewable to the public only recently. Of the few performances he has given, they all feel extremely relaxed and informal. He rejects the convention of flashy, extravagant performances given by most popular artists for a more intimate, casual experience for concertgoers; a majority of his time on stage is spent sitting at a piano with little eye contact with the audience. And it is his honesty and rawness as a public figure that has allowed him to garner one of the most loyal and passionate fan bases of any artist today. But once again, questions arise: Why is he so honest? What has allowed him to act so differently from other artists? What have we done as fans to earn his trust?

Since the release of “Blonde”, Ocean has released a number of singles, including a warm, harmonic cover of “Moon River.” As expected, they all vary greatly in meaning and genre. Time and time again, throughout many different projects, collaborations, and periods in his life, people have been trying to define who Frank Ocean is and to what genre he and his music belong. Technically, he constitutes an R&B artist. But truly, any effort to categorize Ocean is missing the point of his music. Rather than being a hip-hop or rock artist, he’s a lovestruck, summer-loving, 31-year-old sharing his emotions and experiences with the world. He’s an extremely shrewd storyteller who rejects the conventions of genre, and among all four of his major projects, proves to us that his art isn’t R&B nor pop nor soul nor rap; it is absolutely and unequivocally Frank Ocean.