'Imagery, And A Little Bit Of Satire': An Interview With Frank Ocean
, November 22nd, 2011 07:30
This year, Frank Ocean's Nostalgia, Ultra mixtape has swiftly propelled the Odd Future member to international fame. Melissa Bradshaw meets him to talk about the restrictions of genre and songwriting as storytelling
I'm sitting with Frank Ocean's PR in the Natural History Museum café. Frank Ocean is conducting an interview on the carousel. Not actually on a horse, but still I see him and a woman from ID magazine, surrounded by gold emblazoning, occasionally circle in and out of sight. I say I hope he's not going to ask me to interview him on the ice rink. Frank Ocean's PR says no, I don't think he'll ask you to do that. A while later he remembers to tell me something very important: Frank Ocean doesn't see himself as an R&B singer, but a singer/songwriter. I say, yeah I was gonna ask him about that.
I know Frank Ocean doesn't see himself as an R&B artist, because he has already had a cover for The FADER and it says so in there. It makes sense that he's already had a cover for The FADER because they seem to have the same taste as me. Or, from a less self-centred perspective, because though officially signed to Def Jam/Island (via a linkup with Single Ladies/Umbrella/Ride producer Tricky Stewart), with the support of fellow Odd Future collective members he released a mixtape earlier this year that's been so popular that, at his recent London gig, he could comfortably point the mic at his XOYO audience and let them finish off his songs for him. He has turned down the opportunity to have Kanye West on his forthcoming Def Jam album (he wanted to do it on his own, he told Zane Lowe). After Tyler The Creator tweeted fans about the mixtape, Nostalgia, Ultra, Ocean's relationship with Def Jam apparently cooled, but since then the label have released songs 'Novacane' and 'Swim Good' and his official album is in the production phase and due early next year.
If you didn't know all this already, but you know about Tyler The Creator, you might be curious about this connection. But in my opinion far too much attention has already been paid to the rapper who is touted as a lyrical genius for an admittedly good grasp of narrative combined with a somewhat limited and unoriginal subject range, and, um, sophisticated devices like alliteration. Frankly, Frank Ocean is far more interesting. And it is, perhaps, because I have a not-so-closet R&B fetish that when I first hear 'Novacane' I hear wry, bass-driven R&B and email friends that I've got a major new crush. And that the bulk of our interview, which doesn't take place on an ice rink but over a nice stable table, is taken up by the following conversation:
So you consider yourself a singer/songwriter and not an R&B artist?
Frank Ocean: Absolutely.
What's the difference?
FO: The former implies versatility and being able to create more than one medium, and the second one is a box, simple as that. The second one is 'that's what you do, that's what you are', and that's a little unfair, to me, because I don't just do that. So I like singer/songwriter because it allows me to move a little bit more freely.
To reference more genres for instance?
FO: It's not about genre though. I think these days if you're a purist to a certain genre, I dunno, it feels a little dated to me. I think so many genres have rubbed off on each other all the time and… it's just dated. It's played out, it's over, it's done. Stop. Genres are like, I don't know unless we come up with a new system but I don't think you need that, I think in the arts, what do you need that for?
Why do you think genre is dated?
FO: Because I don't think it's accurate anymore. Because it gives me a dated feel, because it's not accurate to how people are feeling music these days. If I'm listening to - give me an artist - if I'm listening to John Mayer, what is that? He's giving me folk sometimes, he's giving me soul sometimes, he's giving me blues sometimes, he's giving me rhythm and blues sometimes, he's giving me pop structure. So, what is that? Is he rock just because he has a guitar? I think that's unfair to him, because he's doing a lot of things. Whereas some artists it might be totally accurate. If I was talking about Wynton Marsalis or Herbie Hancock… Well, Herbie Hancock it might be unfair to him sometimes, because he's versatile as well, but it's gonna be jazz. I'm sorry, I've gone off on a tangent, I'm gonna go off on a tangent about genres.
Not at all. I think it's really interesting. I have a slightly different theory though. No offence, but when I heard 'Novacane' I was like, well that's R&B, to me, even though it was like new R&B. I think that someone can belong to a genre and still come along and do something really different with it and change it, and it will still be… (starts laughing nervously)
FO: [Smiling] Well I disagree, but I'm about coexistence of ideas. Because when I hear 'Novacane' I hear a few things. If you take my vocal off of it I hear hip hop, I hear [it] in the storytelling… I mean, even when you leave my vocal on the record, if you just read the lyrics sheet - if you're really talking about R&B you're talking about everything from Marvin Gaye to Usher.
FO: Or Ne-Yo. Yeah, exactly. And I've never read a lyrics sheet, from Marvin Gaye to Usher, that looks anything like the lyrics on 'Novacane' or the storytelling on there, and that's because I didn't take that kind of storytelling from R&B. I took it from hip-hop. If you listen to that record and you don't at least give a little bit of the props to hip hop and what came from that, then you're limiting it. And that's why I always say that about the genre thing, because that's what it does. When you say 'it's that', you listen to it in certain way. And you might not necessarily miss it, but it's just inaccurate, and you'll miss a couple of things, contextually.
It's interesting to think what makes people call you R&B as well, maybe it's your voice?
FO: I think maybe it's because my voice, maybe because I'm black, and maybe because of those, you know, two things.
FO: Yeah. Because R&B is largely black music, and any guy that's in his 20s especially coming out and singing anything near that field of things automatically gets called that, because it's the first thing that comes to mind. I imagine it's the same here. I'm not from here so I don't really know how it is out here, and how people talk and radio and how things are marketed out here. But in America, it's the first thing that comes to mind. If you're a singer and you're black, you're an R&B artist. Period.
I think it's kind of the same here.
FO: Yeah. If I was singing 'Novacane'… Well, 'Novacane's a different record because [it] does borrow from R&B. But if I was of your complexion, singing 'Novacane', we'd be having a different conversation right now.
Especially if that song was embodied in an album like Nostalgia, Ultra and I was your complexion, and I sang that whole collection, people would listen to it and be like 'Yeah, he borrowed from R&B but it's not just R&B - it's a lot of things, and you can't just call it R&B'. But for some reason their mind will just click to that faster. I'm not pulling a racial card and saying it's necessarily outright discrimination, but in a way it is. In a way it's a little bit of discrimination, but it's… It's something I don't mind checking every time I hear it. It's not really deep and personal, it's not like a diss or anything. It's just inaccurate.
Not unfittingly for an artist who does interviews on carousels, Nostalgia, Ultra is a versatile record indeed. When Ocean, who grew up in New Orleans and only saw his dad once, when he was five and a half years old, sings a heartfelt childhood demand to his father (on 'There Will Be Tears') he is unashamedly vulnerable. On 'Swim Good', which makes you realise the ocean means a lot more to this songwriter than the reference to Ocean's Eleven that he's cited in interviews, he is mysterious and tragic. On 'Lovecrimes' and 'Nature Feels', dangerously sexy. 'Strawberry Swing' makes gorgeous nostalgia of a Coldplay song. There's also a refit of The Eagles' 'Hotel California'.
Inside my head, R&B is the most glorious of genres. It's fun, sexy, and sharp. To me Frank Ocean is one of those artists who comes along and redefines a genre, one of a few that makes a blueprint his own, carrying it into the future. But I'm also acutely aware of a tradition of snobbery towards R&B that can be interpreted along the lines of an (unconscious?) racism.
Ocean, though, also points out that it's to do with people's attitudes towards the human voice as instrument. "I think people often think that there's some lesser degree of difficulty to what vocalists do, period, to people who play other instruments," he says. "I don't think that's just limited to R&B. I think all singers kind of get that snobbery from other musicians. 'Cos it's like, our instrument's here and here [points to lungs and throat], and you kind of have to work a little bit harder to get that respect."
I'm also acutely aware that I have a tendency to see metaphors in everything, so I have to check that my interpretation of 'Novacane' as satirical commentary (in which the singer meets a girl who's a stripper aiming to be a dentist, and gets high on novocaine with her, everything goes numb) is in line with his intentions. References to autotune, and refrains about having pretty girls around suggest as much. And yes, I'm told, "absolutely". I ask if that commentary is directed at the music scene and he knowingly laughs "Can't feel a thing? Uh, more or less."
Then I try and get into an interpretation of the character in 'Swim Good' and Frank Ocean politely withdraws, saying he'd enjoy that discussion but he doesn't want to spoil his audience's experience of his songs. We also talk about how much of what goes into them is drawn from personal experience. "I don't do cocaine for breakfast!" he laughs (another Novacane reference). "At all. My kitchen is usually pretty clean, you know. But you have fun with the imagery, and for me the whole concept that everything has to be… Like, nobody gets upset with a director when a director's film isn't about his life. People think that with a recording artist that shit has to be like a fucking play by play of their whole life, but it's not. It's imagery, and a little bit of satire."
He might have been thinking of Tyler there, but I missed it at the time, because I was thinking of the confessional nature of singer/songwriting. The interview ends overly abruptly. If I ever see Frank Ocean again it'll probably be when he's a megastar. And I'll be pleased to think of him as a brilliant craftsman of a singer-songwriter.