Frank Ocean – Frank Ocean GQ Man Of The Year Interview
[Introduction: Amy Wallace]
Yes, he made the album of 2012. (Just ask him, he'll tell you.) But that was just the second biggest moment of Frank Ocean's year. Here, while wearing the sport coats of the season and surrounded by his whole Odd Future crew, the ascendant singer opens up to Amy Wallace about his crazy year—including the bomb he dropped on the hip-hop world.
If Frank Ocean wanted to play you a song, you'd drive across town in the pouring rain, right? That's how we've ended up at Jungle City, a sound studio in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood. When we walk in, Ocean leading the way, Pharrell Williams turns down the music and greets him warmly. "Here you are," the prolific rapper and producer tells him. "You've walked in at the right time."
"Sweet," Ocean replies, picking up Pharrell's diamond-studded gold chain that sits—fat as a tow rope—at the edge of the mixing board. Ocean, dressed in a gray Supreme hoodie, jeans, and black Wallabees, smiles as he dons the weighty necklace—it jibes with the new Rolex on his left wrist, the Cartier Juste Un Clou bracelet on his right. In a bit, he'll Instagram a bejeweled portrait of himself, but first he unveils three new tracks, stored on his phone, that Pharrell pronounces "crazy, with a lot of comprehensive layers just sort of living harmoniously." When Ocean says he worries a rap number called "Blue Whale" is "risky because I'm rhyming," Pharrell shakes his head.
"That's not risky. That thought is dead," he says. "It's like, 'You know, I rhyme, too.' "
Turning to me, Pharrell says, "I always call him James Taylor. He's probably the closest thing to a writer's perfect exemplification of the unconscious. All the songs are like movies. All you need to do is close your eyes."
Now it's Pharrell's turn to spin a track-in-progress. They listen, bobbing their heads slightly, occasionally both bursting into song. When the room is quiet again, Ocean says the song "feels like a Rubik's Cube melodically. You want something emotionally rich on that, you know what I'm saying? But if I listen to it enough, I could map a way out." Before we exit, they agree Ocean will come back later this evening to work on it. Pharrell is attending the first show of Jay-Z's eight-night run at the brand-new Barclays Center in Brooklyn, but he says he'll come back, too. "Ain't no afterparty more important than this."
"Map a way out"—it's a phrase Ocean will use more than once during the next four hours as we talk about his life and especially his last few months. He's still just 25, but it feels like he packed ten years' worth of living into 2012 alone, releasing a heralded album, Channel Orange, in July and headlining Saturday Night Live's season premiere in September. Throughout this period he has also been handling the reverberations of something he revealed on Tumblr just before Channel Orange's debut: his memories of an intimate relationship with his first love, a man—a rare admission in the macho world of hip-hop and R&B.
It's important to Ocean to be the master of his own identity: Last year he changed his name from Lonny Breaux to Christopher Francis Ocean, drawing on Frank Sinatra and the original Ocean's 11 film for inspiration. And yet he admits that the failed relationship he mentioned on Tumblr sent him spinning out of control, rocking him even as it improved his musicality, transforming him from a man with skills to a skillful man with something he suddenly was burning to say. What was going through his mind this summer, he tells me, was something like this: "If I'm going to say this, I'm going to be better than all you pieces of shit. What you going to say now? You can't say, 'Oh, they're only listening to him because he said this.' No, they're listening to me because I'm gifted, and this project is brilliant."
GQ: GQ: You were born in Long Beach, California, but moved to New Orleans at age 5. When is the first time you realized you wanted to write and perform music?
Frank Ocean: fo: I feel like I was writing as I was learning to talk. Writing was always a goto form of communication. And I knew I could sing from being in tune with the radio. I would listen to whatever my mom played in the car—the big divas: Whitney, Mariah, Celine, Anita Baker. Then I got exposed to Prince. I think it was "The Beautiful Ones." He was screaming at the end. And this lady who was playing it was saying, "Ain't no man scream like Prince." And I was like, "That's fucking awesome."
GQ: Your dad had left when you were 6, so your mom raised you on her own.
Frank Ocean: I haven't seen him since. And for a while, you know, we were not middle-class. We were poor. But my mom never accepted that. She worked hard to become a residential contractor—got her master's with honors at the University of New Orleans. I used to go to every class with her. Her father was my paternal figure. He'd had a really troubled life with crack, heroin, and alcohol and had kids he wasn't an ideal parent to. I was his second chance, and he gave it his best shot. My grandfather was smart and had a whole lot of pride. He didn't speak a terrible amount, but you could tell there was a ton on his mind—like a quiet acceptance of how life had turned out. He was a mentor at AA and NA, and I would go with him to meetings.
GQ: When did you start recording?
Frank Ocean: I booked my first studio at like 12 or 13. Somewhere in that season of my life, singing along with the radio became me wanting to be on radio, you know. And writing Langston Hughes replica poems became me wanting to write like Stevie Wonder. My dad had been a singer and keyboardist. So my mom was like, "You're going to follow that bum? Maybe you should just go to law school."
GQ: You stayed in New Orleans until after Katrina, then drove cross-country with just $1,100 in your pocket. What made you move to Los Angeles?
Frank Ocean: I had been putting together these demos that I was going to properly record in a real studio in L.A. So I saved up money doing Sheetrocking, and I drove out with my girlfriend at the time. I was only supposed to be there for six weeks. I don't feel like I ever made a conscious decision to stay six years. You just kind of roll. The first four and a half years was me in the studio every day, writing songs for other people. I had jobs, too—eleven jobs. I worked at Kinko's, Fatburger, Subway—I was a sandwich artist—and I was a claims processor at Allstate Insurance.
GQ: So how did you go from Fatburger to writing songs for Brandy and Justin Bieber and John Legend?
Frank Ocean: We're talking about hundreds of things that happened. One night, I went to a listening party just to pick up my backpack from a friend. Next thing I know, I'm in this studio, and everybody's putting their laptops on the pool table, playing songs through these big-ass speakers. It was crazy. And they wanted me to play, so I plugged in, and they were like, "Oh shit." There were producers there, and they said, "You should come up to the studio and write." So I did. I'd sit in those rooms for hours. But I wouldn't write any line that was as good as the lines being written in the rooms next to me. It was just like: I had to elevate. I was looking at it like an athlete then—like I just wanted to be better than everybody else. I hadn't gone through anything emotionally yet. I had never been in love. I had never been heartbroken. When that happened, that's really what changed everything. That turned me into a real artist. It made the difference between somebody hearing something of mine and being like, "Wow, this is a fresh approach," and somebody hearing something and crying, you know?
GQ: You're talking about the relationship you wrote about on your Tumblr page—the one that you likened to "being thrown from a cliff" when you were 19. How did that change your songwriting?
Frank Ocean: It became effortless. Like breathing. Because now I have something I really need to say. It was Mindfuck.net. It was a floodgate. It opened up the works.
GQ: Def Jam reportedly signed you as a recording artist in 2009 but didn't open up its checkbook at that point to help you record. The next year, you met Tyler, the Creator, and the other members of Odd Future. How important was that?
Frank Ocean: I was at a real dark time in my life when I met them. I was looking for just a reprieve. At 20 or 21, I had, I think, a couple hundred thousand dollars [from producing and songwriting], a nice car, a Beverly Hills apartment—and I was miserable. Because of the relationship in part and the heartbreak in part, and also just miserable because of like just carting that around. And here was this group of like-minded individuals whose irreverence made me revere. The do-it-yourself mentality of OF really rubbed off on me.
GQ: They inspired you to record your first album, Nostalgia, Ultra, on your own dime and release it for free, right? Def Jam had signed Lonny Breaux, then this Frank Ocean guy puts out an Internet sensation that makes a lot of best-albums lists. When they tried to sign you again, was it satisfying to say, "Oh, you already have"?
Frank Ocean: Yeah, I just told them, "Give me $1 million if you want the next album."
It's still sprinkling a bit when we dive back into the hired Lexus and head across the East River to the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens. I've suggested it because I know Ocean's love of movies is so engulfing that they've become a part of his vocabulary. On his first album, he sampled some of the dialogue in Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut, and he tells me he got the inspiration for his hit song "Super Rich Kids" from Steven Soderbergh's Traffic. He has said that he sees writing a song as making a photograph out of materials that aren't visible.
So it's no surprise when Ocean whips out his phone and starts taking pictures—of the Men in Black 3 monster exhibit, of the weird installation with beanbag chairs, even of the angular stairways. But the highlight is when we come upon a collection of vintage arcade games. Anyone who saw Ocean's performance on SNL has an inkling of his love of games. (He finished his set that night by retreating to play Galaga as John Mayer riffed on guitar.) Now, as he spots the original Pong, Super Breakout, Asteroids, Galaxian, Donkey Kong, and Frogger games, all in a row, he steps more quickly, as if greeting old friends.
This, I realize, is a sort of Frank Ocean version of heaven. Because these aren't just decommissioned museum pieces. You can buy tokens and actually play. I buy four, and he chooses Battle Zone, in which you try to sink things that appear on the horizon. His first game he scores 7,000 points, and the machine prompts him to type his initials in the winner's circle: CFO, in seventh place. His fourth game, he racks up 12,000 points—second place. But when I congratulate him, he points to the number one score: it's 12,000, too. "I'm the same as first place," says the man who must be better than all those other pieces of shit. And then we get back in the car.
GQ: Is it true that you wrote the songs for Channel Orange in three weeks?
Frank Ocean: Yeah, then I worked on them for nine months—a typical gestation period.
GQ: You're something of a perfectionist, I gather.
Frank Ocean: John Mayer and I were talking in rehearsal before SNL, and he was like, "You love to take the hardest way. You don't always have to." But I don't know about that. It's like Billy Joel says in that song "Vienna." When the truth is told / That you can get what you want or you can just get old. We all know we have a finite period of time. I just feel if I'm going to be alive, I want to be challenged—to be as immortal as possible. The path to that isn't an easy way, but it's a rewarding way.
I never think about myself as an artist working in this time. I think about it in macro. I feel like Elton John just made "Tiny Dancer." He just made that shit like last night. Jimi Hendrix just burned his fucking guitar onstage. Right? Freddie Mercury just had the half mike stand in his hand in the fucking stadium. Prince was just on the mountain in "Under the Cherry Moon." And I was there. That's how I look at it. Like this shit just went down. You see the mastery that I'm surrounded by? How on earth am I going to take the easiest way? A friend of mine jokes that I have a painstaking royalty complex. Like maybe I was a duke in a past life. But all you have is 100 percent. Period.
GQ: Let's talk about your open letter on Tumblr. Posting that must've felt like the hardest way.
Frank Ocean: Yes, absolutely.
GQ: So why did you do it? Were some people raising questions about the male pronouns in a few of the songs?
Frank Ocean: I had Skyped into a listening session that Def Jam was hosting for Channel Orange, and one of the journalists, very harmlessly—quotation gestures in the air, "very harmlessly"—wrote a piece and mentioned that. I was just like, "Fuck it. Talk about it, don't talk about it—talk about this." No more mystery. Through with that.
GQ: You'd written the letter back in December, for inclusion in the liner notes. Were you afraid of the aftermath when you finally posted it in July?
Frank Ocean: The night I posted it, I cried like a fucking baby. It was like all the frequency just clicked to a change in my head. All the receptors were now receiving a different signal, and I was happy. I hadn't been happy in so long. I've been sad again since, but it's a totally different take on sad. There's just some magic in truth and honesty and openness.
GQ: Exactly how did your perspective change?
Frank Ocean: Whatever I said in that letter, before I posted it, seemed so huge. But when you come out the other side, now your brain—instead of receiving fear—sees "Oh, shit happened and nothing happened." Brain says, "Self, I'm fine." I look around, and I'm touching my fucking limbs, and I'm good. Before anybody called me and said congratulations or anything nice, it had already changed. It wasn't from outside. It was completely in here, in my head.
GQ: Did you worry it would derail your career?
Frank Ocean: I had those fears. In black music, we've got so many leaps and bounds to make with acceptance and tolerance in regard to that issue. It reflects something just ingrained, you know. When I was growing up, there was nobody in my family—not even my mother—who I could look to and be like, "I know you've never said anything homophobic." So, you know, you worry about people in the business who you've heard talk that way. Some of my heroes coming up talk recklessly like that. It's tempting to give those views and words—that ignorance—more attention than they deserve. Very tempting.
Some people said, "He's saying he fell in love with a guy for hype." As if that's the best hype you can get in hip-hop or black music. So I knew that if I was going to say what I said, it had to be in concert with one of the most brilliant pieces of art that has come out in my generation. And that's what I did. Why can I say that? Why I don't have to affect all this humility and shit is because I worked my ass off. I worked my face off. And the part that you love the most is the easiest part for me. So I'll do it again.
GQ: I'm sure if you'd wanted an excuse not to reveal the relationship, you could have found ten people in the industry who would have said, "Wait."
Frank Ocean: The pitch is, "You'll encounter less resistance in life if you say, 'No, I'm going to just keep dating girls.' " But then you're minimizing the resistance that you're feeling from yourself on the inside. There's so much upkeep on that shit. So much upkeep on a lie. But at least everybody else is cool with how you carry on with your life. That's what they say. But know what fear does to your strength. You don't even feel smart or capable. You just feel broken—and not just your heart. Just a broken person.
GQ: So do you consider yourself bisexual?
Frank Ocean: You can move to the next question. I'll respectfully say that life is dynamic and comes along with dynamic experiences, and the same sentiment that I have towards genres of music, I have towards a lot of labels and boxes and shit. I'm in this business to be creative—I'll even diminish it and say to be a content provider. One of the pieces of content that I'm for fuck sure not giving is porn videos. I'm not a centerfold. I'm not trying to sell you sex. People should pay attention to that in the letter: I didn't need to label it for it to have impact. Because people realize everything that I say is so relatable, because when you're talking about romantic love, both sides in all scenarios feel the same shit. As a writer, as a creator, I'm giving you my experiences. But just take what I give you. You ain't got to pry beyond that. I'm giving you what I feel like you can feel. The other shit, you can't feel. You can't feel a box. You can't feel a label. Don't get caught up in that shit. There's so much something in life. Don't get caught up in the nothing. That shit is nothing, you know? It's nothing. Vanish the fear.
As we make our way back from Astoria, Ocean tells me that he's got at least five projects in the works, among them a song he wrote for Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained; songs he's working on for Alicia Keys and Beyoncé; songs for his own third album; and a European tour, which he says he wants to model on Pink Floyd's The Wall tour. He's even thinking about maybe opening his own arcade (though later he'll post on Tumblr that this idea is "morphing").
He is considering buying a place in New York City. He needs a break from L.A.'s relentless sunshine, he says, and right now Manhattan is giving him exactly that: The rain is coming down in sheets. We pull up to his SoHo hotel, and he asks if we can idle while he runs in to get "studio-ready." A few minutes later, he emerges, laptop in hand. He's switched his contacts out for glasses and changed into what looks like board shorts and another Supreme hoodie, this one maroon. It's 9 p.m. on a Friday as we head back to Jungle City. Pharrell is out in Brooklyn, waiting for Jay-Z to take the stage. But not Ocean. He has a song to write.
Amy Wallace is a GQ correspondent.
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