Frank Ocean has been one of the more fascinating figures in contemporary music since his early-2010s arrival. A singer and songwriter whose artful output has defied rigid classification as R&B, he has nonetheless pushed that genre forward with seemingly offhanded yet imaginatively detailed narratives in which he has alternated between yearning romantic and easygoing braggart. Known first as a writer and Odd Future affiliate, Ocean made his solo debut with “Novacane” (2011), a single regarding a fling that could be read, in part, as a criticism of commercial radio, yet it found a home on mainstream urban playlists and went platinum. Despite further strained relations with music industry machinations, Channel Orange (2012), his first proper album, nearly crowned the Billboard 200 and made him a Grammy winner. When Ocean left the major-label system, his commercial clout was greater than ever, as demonstrated by the chart-topping success of Blonde (2016). His recordings since then amount to a short album’s worth of singles including the platinum “Chanel” (2017) and the simultaneously-issued “Dear April” and “Cayendo” (2020).
Born Christopher Edwin Breaux in Long Beach, California, Ocean moved with his family to New Orleans, Louisiana at the age of five. The aspiring songwriter and singer had just moved into his dorm at the University of New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit. With his future under water, Ocean immediately left the academic life behind and moved to Los Angeles to give music a shot. He cut some demos at a friend’s home studio, shopped them around town, and eventually landed a songwriting deal that led to work for Justin Bieber, John Legend, and Brandy. Some of this writing was done beside Christopher "Tricky" Stewart, a fellow songwriter and producer who convinced Ocean to sign a solo artist deal with Def Jam in late 2009. It was also around this time that Ocean met Odd Future and began writing for the crew while making guest appearances on their mixtapes.
In February 2011, as Odd Future were making waves, Ocean broke out on his own with the Nostalgia, Ultra mixtape, issued through his Tumblr blog. Later in the year, he appeared on Tyler, the Creator’s Goblin (“She,” “Window”), Beyoncé’s 4 (“I Miss You”), and Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch the Throne (“No Church in the Wild,” “Made in America”). Def Jam’s plan for the release of Nostalgia, Lite — an EP-length version of the mixtape — was scrapped, yet the songs “Novacane” (produced by Stewart) and “Swim Good” (MIDI Mafia) were released as singles with accompanying videos. The former reached number 17 on Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop chart and eventually went platinum. The latter peaked at number 70. By the end of the year, several publications listed Nostalgia, Ultra as one of 2011′s best releases.
Ocean proceeded with the making of his official debut album, working beside the likes of Malay, Om'Mas Keith, and Pharrell Williams as fellow producers. The LP, Channel Orange, was previewed for journalists at a handful of listening events. Some writers alleged that certain lyrics on the album revealed Ocean’s bisexuality. Ocean subsequently published a screen shot of a TextEdit file (entitled “thank you’s”) that included details of a romantic relationship, his first love, with a man. On July 10, 2012, six days after the post, Channel Orange was released by Def Jam as a download. The CD version followed a week later. Along with featured appearances from Earl Sweatshirt, John Mayer, and André 3000, the album involved material about unrequited love, as well as class and drug dependency, all delivered with Ocean’s descriptive storytelling and understated yet expressive vocals. Channel Orange received nearly universal critical acclaim and landed on the Billboard 200 chart at number two. Ocean was subsequently nominated in six Grammy categories, including three of the “big four” (Album of the Year, Record of the Year, and Best New Artist. Channel Orange took the award for Best Urban Contemporary Album, and Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “No Church in the Wild” won Best Rap/Sung collaboration.
As Channel Orange was on its way to gold certification, Ocean began work on a follow-up. Various recording details were reported during those three years. Ocean dropped hints that led to much speculation. Meanwhile, he appeared on Beyoncé’s self-titled album, Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo, and James Blake’s The Colour in Anything. In August 2016, a video of him building a staircase, accompanied by instrumentals, was streamed on his website. Later that month, he released Endless, a 45-minute visual album that featured additional construction footage and a stream of full-blown songs written primarily by Ocean alone. Jazmine Sullivan, Jonny Greenwood, and Blake were among the contributors to the new material. The following day, Ocean released the skeletal and sprawling Blonde for streaming. Copies of an Ocean-published magazine, distributed at pop-up locations, included a compact disc version with a shorter track list. A multi-genre festival’s worth of “album contributors,” ranging from many of his previous associates to the likes of David Bowie and Yung Lean, was listed in the pages of the publication. The album replaced Drake’s Views at the top of the Billboard 200.
Beginning with the platinum “Chanel,” Ocean issued a few singles across 2017, during which he also surfaced on Jay-Z’s 4:44, Tyler, The Creator’s Flower Boy, and Calvin Harris’ Funk Wav Bounces, Vol. 1. An update of Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer’s “Moon River” followed in 2018. “DHL” and “In My Room” arrived in 2019. “Dear April” and “Cayendo” were offered together in 2020. ~ Andy Kellman