Original, controversial, captivating – aren’t those the ingredients which add up to a super star? Frank Ocean hasn’t courted popularity, but through taking an alternative viewpoint and standing up for musical integrity, he may have earned it.
It is hard not to admire a music artist who takes on the establishment on a number of fronts, and wins. Since his ‘Nostalgia, Ultra’ mixtape back in 2011, alternative rapper Frank Ocean has done exactly that, and proved that if you give the public something different, done very well, it can still make an impact.
A musical maverick
Just as known for his unique lyrical delivery as he is for the eyebrow raising instrumentals he favours rapping over – from progressive funk to minimal trip hop – Ocean has become a chart sensation against all odds. His second album ‘Blonde’, released in 2016 alongside an entirely ‘visual’ album, went straight to number one in both the UK and the USA. In the Pop Idol era of manufactured music acts, this should be seen as a big achievement, considering Ocean’s leftfield approach.
Critics, who admittedly don’t represent the tastes of the public at large, have gushed over Ocean’s intriguing take on R’n’B. The New York Times compared him to such luminaries as “Prince, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Maxwell, Erykah Badu and particularly R. Kelly”. But you get the feeling Ocean wouldn’t be one to bathe himself in the plaudits he receives.
Ocean has even used his material, specifically the song Novocaine, to speak out at the apparent numbing of musical tastes by mainstream radio in the US, which can favour southern rap and EDM pop. He has the potential to be a figurehead of the movement which shuns the artificial sounds churned out daily over the airwaves, and has already begun this quest with the launch of his own radio show – Blonded.
Not the norm
Perhaps nothing illustrates his determination to rise above the cliches of modern music more than a conversation he had on the show with legendary rap star Jay Z, which was noted in The New Yorker magazine. Singing from the same hymn sheet as Ocean, Jay Z said: “You take these pop stations, they’re reaching eighteen-to-thirty-four young white females. So they’re playing music based on those tastes. And then they’re taking those numbers and they’re going to advertising agencies, and people are paying numbers based on the audience that they have. So these places are not even based on music.”
Jay Z’s words seemed to sum up the shared disillusionment of the two artists.
Happy with personal public scrutiny?
Following many musical enigmas before him – David Bowie and Morrisey among them – Ocean has poured fuel on the fire when it comes to the constant speculation surrounding his sexuality. When rumours were rife that he is bisexual, Ocean was completely frank and open in his publication of a letter which detailed his “first love”, at 19, with another man.
Being so brave in the face of public scrutiny should be applauded, but Ocean’s ‘devil may care’ attitude occasionally makes things more complicated for him, and recently that includes the relationship with his father. In coming out and condemning the 2016 Orlando gay club shootings, Ocean suggested that the first homophobia he encountered was from his father. Ocean’s Dad took exception to this claim, and has proceeded to sue his son for over $14 million this year.
As you might expect, Ocean shows little respect for the concept of a label governing his work, and after spells at Def Jam and Three Six Zero, went on to found his own independent label. But he might have grown a little more wary of where his music originates from, after a previous run in with legendary US rockers, The Eagles. On his ‘Nostalgia, Ultra’ mixtape, Ocean appeared to sample music from The Eagles’ classic ‘Hotel California’. He then stoked up the dispute with his claim that the band were intimidated by his sampling of the song. Thus far, The Eagles have not decided to pursue legal action, but it seems as though Ocean may on shaky ground with the issue. It is doubtful that he is overly concerned.
Is any publicity, good or bad, a concern?
An altercation with a fellow rapper? Add that to Ocean’s resume too, after he got into an argument with another controversial mic man, Chris Brown, over a parking space outside a Los Angeles recording studio. The incident reportedly ended with Brown punching Ocean, and one of his entourage shouting a homophobic slur. Such is the nature of show business, that these kind of news items only serve to enlarge the profile of music artists. With a 2017 tour diary on both sides of the Atlantic, the unique musical ground occupied by Frank Ocean is set to grow this year.