A master of artistry and marketing, we take a closer look at how Frank Ocean continues to mystify and remould the music industry.
An artist in every sense of the word, Frank Ocean- born New Orleans’ Christopher Edwin Breaux- has all but shed his earthly vessel. He exists in a space that is increasingly hard to retain in the era of instant communication. When he appears at events such as The Met Gala to shoot behind the scenes photos for Vogue or links up with Flacko at Paris Fashion Week, it instigates a commotion amid ordinarily composed music consumers. For music industry professionals, he occupies a unique space of a “sacred cow.” Failure to treat his work with the gravitas that the world demands weighs heavy on the mind. Handled with the care and respect of a priceless heirloom, it’s a uniquely enviable position to be in. But rather than being some astral being that descended from the stars to etch his name in musical history, this mystique was established by more than transcendental talent alone. In reality, the evergreen career of Frank Ocean has been fortified by his business acumen and diligence in protecting his brand.
Years before he’d become a bastion of high art in hip-hop & R&B, Frank Ocean was a fledgling artist waiting for his big break. Uprooting from his native NOLA to LA in the pursuit of prosperity, what began as a brief stay gave way to finding some like-minded outliers in Tyler, The Creator and Odd Future. In conjunction with discovering a collective, Frank’s time in LA would lead to a slew of songwriting gigs that saw him write songs for artists that varied from John Legend to Brandy. After penning two tracks for her Human LP in 2008, Brandy took note of the unbridled creative energy and exhaustive attention to detail that he’s applied to all aspects of his output and public dealings ever since. “I'm like, 'Dude, you're special,'" she remembered. "'Please know that you’re special.' And he’s so meticulous and he needs everything to be on point and that’s when I knew that if he was gonna be an artist, he was gonna do it his own way. He trusted his gut, he trusted his instinct, and I’m just really proud that we are blessed by his talent."
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A further three years on from this ringing endorsement, Ocean would stake his claim as an artist deserving of the world’s collective gaze on Nostalgia, Ultra. Split between original compositions and adaptations of tracks from Coldplay, MGMT and The Eagles, everything from the evocative songwriting to the art direction--- which features his “dream car” of a 1980’s BMW E30 M3— felt like one cohesive entity. In the wake of its release, Frank Ocean went from a hyped up-and-comer to a hot commodity. Upon turning in two spellbinding performances on Watch The Throne, Frank’s in-built artistic compass ultimately led him to rebuff Kanye’s offer to help him with his debut album. “As much as I want to work with you…I kind of want to do this without you,” he stated. “I kind of want this to be done without you. I kind of want to do it on my own.” Pleasantries aside, there was no “kind of” at work. Frank had the album already conceived in his mind, and the resulting Channel Orange would act as the turning point. Bolstered by nothing other than thoughtfully-curated features from Andre 3000 and Earl Sweatshirt and sparing guitar from John Mayer, his 2012 debut saw Frank exact his unique vision. True to himself at all times, the sonically-orientated risks on the record coincided with the release of an open letter confessional that would endear him to millions the world over. “BASEDGOD WAS RIGHT”, proclaimed Frank Ocean, on Independence Day 2012. Released on a day that celebrates a nation’s emancipation from tyranny, it was a symbolic date for Frank to tell the world that he’d once been in love with a man and was openly bisexual.
Steeped in a genre that still harbors a parochial relationship with homophobia, the short-term gamble of speaking his truth panned out in ways that extend far beyond his musical wheelhouse. It inspired thousands around the world. But like that, Frank began his gradual retreat into self-imposed exile that would last for the better part of four years. Save for auspiciously popping up on tracks from like minded creatives like Kanye and Tyler, Frank bided his time as he prepared to usher in his next era. During this time, he carried his works in progress around with him rather than committing it to online permanence. As he told The New York Times, the reason for this was to retain complete and indisputable control over his legacy: “I’d rather the plane goes down in flames and the drives go down with me than somebody put out a weird posthumous release.”
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Then, as if by magic, the floodgates opened. Released as an audio-visual project through Apple Music on August 19th 2016, Endless was a conceptual piece that took us deep into the psyche of Frank Ocean. Met with bewilderment by some and rapturous praise by others, what we didn’t yet know was that it was equal parts a precursor to the main attraction and a true masterstroke of cunning, contractual intellect. Although the news was reported at the time, the rationale behind Endless’ rollout and the journey to Blonde’s release a day later seemed innocuous. However, it was the kudos he received from ASAP Rocky during an interview with Power 105’s Angie Martinez that really drilled home the level of ingeniousness at work:
“He had a deal and he didn’t put out an album in four years. And with his deal, he literally figured out how to get 20 million, make the funds apply to a whole different album, get out his deal, all in one round. Do you know how embarrassed the record industry was? That man figured out how to finesse the music industry and people don’t talk about that. It took that man two years to do that shit. Then Blonde- he already got 20-million-dollar check from Apple for that and he didn’t have to give any of it back to his label cos he already gave them Endless.”
Where others toe the line, Frank Ocean remains in a constant state of lateral thought. It’s exactly what led him to hatch this plot and deliver his masterpiece in the first place. “It started to weigh on me that I was responsible for the moves that had made me successful,” he explained to the New York Times. “But I wasn’t reaping the lion’s share of the profits, and that was problematic for me.” Now independent in every sense of the word, Frank’s resolve to carry the burden of his artistic, aesthetical and administrative affairs has paid off to the nth degree. It even made the public unveiling of his Instagram account into a newsworthy event. By granting his audience brief, incendiary bursts of content that gives them plenty to theorize on and dissect for years at a time, Frank has created a self-sustainable model from which anyone making their first tentative steps into the music industry could harvest endless wisdom.