Frank Ocean Can Fly
Frank Ocean did not want to ride in my rented Ford Fusion; that much was clear. After I parked the car, he met me outside his modernist apartment building in Los Angeles and led me to the garage where he rents three parking spots for three different BMWs. He was dressed casually — gray hoodie, jeans, high-top Vans with red laces, baseball cap — and he jumped lightly from the curb to the parking blocks as we walked toward his late-model blue BMW M3. Ocean no longer had driving privileges as a result of some recent violations, on top of which he was cited for marijuana possession a few weeks earlier. “You can drive,” he said, though I could tell that it was killing him.
At our first official interview earlier in the day, Ocean spent the first five minutes staring down at his phone. He didn’t so much as look up at me, as I made small talk with his managers and awaited his attention. Eventually he said, “Here’s what I think about music and journalism: The most important thing is to just press play.” He followed that with, “All in all, I just don’t trust journalists — and I don’t think it’s a good practice for me to trust journalists.” But he did promise to let me do my job, so there we were. I managed to get the car in gear and out of the garage, but as we pulled onto Vine, I took a dip too quickly. There was an ominous crunch as the front end scraped on the roadway, and Ocean winced. In my mind I booked the next red-eye home. But the formality and distance that characterized our lunch that day had given way to a softer, more relaxed mood. “Don’t worry about it, bro,” Ocean said with a smile, and we were off.
Ocean at his Los Angeles apartment.
Maybe he didn’t mind because we were headed somewhere that he was actually excited to go, a garage in North Hollywood, where a vintage 1990 BMW E30 sedan is being rebuilt to his exact specifications. He likes to show up unannounced, just to see if they’re working on his car, and as soon as we got there, Ocean jumped out and headed to the back of the shop. The car was indeed up on a lift, and as he circled it, he began to tick off things that he didn’t like. He’s 25, but he speaks like somebody who expects to be listened to. His managers, Christian and Kelly Clancy, told me the night before — by way of explaining that anything could happen, or not, interview-wise — that Frank Ocean makes the decisions where Frank Ocean is concerned. They help him steer, but he goes only if he wants to.
He pointed to the shiny metallic exhaust tips that were about to be welded at the back of the car and said: “No. Black. I don’t want it shiny.” Perfectly courteous, but firm. A technician removed the tips. When he made it around to the front of the car, he noticed a piece of black metalwork with an insignia on it. “What’s up with the language?” he asked. “Do we need the language on it?” The owner of the garage said he could get Ocean a plain black one, but he didn’t think it was necessary because once the engine was complete you’d never see it. “It doesn’t matter if you can see it,” Ocean said.
This was clearly the same man who produced “Channel Orange,” one of the most meticulously constructed records of 2012. “I have no delusions about my likability, in every scenario,” he told me earlier. “I know that in order to get things done the way you want them, oftentimes your position will be unpopular.” The BMW that he is rebuilding will have the steering wheel on the right-hand side, because he wants it that way, and the engine and body of the car will be as quiet and as light as possible. “You won’t even hear me,” he said, looking into the glow of the garage. “I want it to be a sleeper. I’ll pull up next to you, and you won’t even know I’m there” — a smile came on his face — “and then as soon as the light turns, I’m gone.”
Before “Channel Orange” was released in July, Ocean was something of a sleeper in the hip-hop and R.&B. worlds. Some people had heard the free mixtape, “Nostalgia, Ultra,” that he released online in 2011, or they knew of him through his affiliation with Odd Future, a loosely connected and somewhat anarchic group of rappers in Los Angeles that Ocean joined in 2010. Others had heard of him because he contributed vocal hooks to two tracks on “Watch the Throne,” the much-anticipated collaboration between Jay-Z and Kanye West that was one of the biggest-selling records of 2011. Ocean’s is the first voice you hear on “Watch the Throne” — a platinum vote of confidence, given the artists whose names are on the cover.
In the wee hours of July 4 last year, several days before the release of “Channel Orange,” Ocean took to his Tumblr site — his main point of contact with his fans — and released a document that appeared to be the acknowledgments section of the liner notes for the forthcoming record. “4 summers ago, I met somebody,” he wrote. “I was 19 years old. He was too.” The two-paragraph message was a product of a sensitive mind and a still-broken heart. “By the time I realized I was in love, it was malignant. It was hopeless. There was no escaping, no negotiating with the feeling, no choice. It was my first love. It changed my life,” he wrote. “Imagine being thrown from a plane.”
The media took the message to be an outright profession of homosexuality, though Ocean has been reluctant to label himself. In an interview with GQ magazine last December, he said, “In black music, we’ve got so many leaps and bounds to make with acceptance and tolerance.” Many of the biggest figures in hip-hop, like Russell Simmons (the founder of Def Jam) and Jay-Z, voiced their support. Others, like the rapper 50 Cent, were supportive but suspected that there was more to the admission than the unburdening of a secret. “You can call it brave or you can call it marketing,” he told MTV, “because it was intentional. It wasn’t an accident.”
Whether Ocean intended the post in part as marketing or not, the media’s fascination with his sexuality drove an enormous amount of interest in him and his record. On “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” on July 9, Ocean performed a near-flawless rendition of “Bad Religion,” one of the most finely wrought songs on “Channel Orange” and one of the few that openly refers to love for another man. As the performance was shown on the East Coast, Def Jam released the album digitally through iTunes, a week in advance of the physical CD release. It sold 131,000 copies in its first week, enough to land at No. 2 on the Billboard charts.
But as those 131,000 copies of “Channel Orange” (mine among them) made their way onto iPods and car stereos, as Ocean’s music got a chance to speak for itself, the questions about his sexuality turned sideshow. Some records, rare records, become a part of your life. They arrive at just the right moment and take over for a while, mapping familiar terrain in unexpected ways. For a lot of people, people with very different backgrounds and preferences, “Channel Orange” was this kind of record. Music magazines like SPIN and Paste named “Channel Orange” the album of the year, while Rolling Stone put it at No. 2. “Saturday Night Live” invited Ocean to be the musical guest for its season opener in September. He has been compared to Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Prince, J. D. Salinger and Joan Didion, among many others. And this weekend, at the 55th Annual Grammy Awards, Ocean is up for six different prizes, including Best New Artist, Record of the Year and Album of the Year.
Like Ocean in person, the album is challenging. It demands to be taken on its own terms, and in places it puts you to work. For a first-time listener, things don’t fall into a “put this on at your party” rhythm until the fifth track, “Sweet Life,” and even then Ocean makes you stop immediately afterward for one of the album’s many nonmusical interludes. But once you’ve taken the entire album in, its internal logic — the interludes, the snippets of found audio, the song order, the sudden toggles between bravado and vulnerability in Ocean’s lyric style — begins to reveal itself. “The best song wasn’t the single,” Ocean intones at the outset of “Sweet Life,” and by the second or third time around you find yourself singing along, convinced.
Artists don’t usually give satisfying answers to the question of how or why they do what they do, and maybe that’s for the best. Sometimes songs mean more to us when we don’t totally grasp the lyrics. Ocean is acutely aware of this. He knows that, as much as anything, he is selling an idea. “That’s why image is so important,” he said. “That’s why you’ve got to practice brevity when you do interviews like this. I could try to make myself likable to you so you could write a piece that keeps my image in good standing, because I’m still selling this, or I could just say, ‘My art speaks for itself.’” He practices brevity in most things. He curates and updates his image on Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr deftly and consistently, but he never overshares. “As a writer, as a creator, I’m giving you my experiences,” he said in the GQ interview. “But just take what I give you. You ain’t got to pry beyond that.” To me, he said, “I don’t know if it’s a shield or whatever, but I want to deflect as much as I can onto my work.”
He has had what he calls “a creeping sense of mortality” since he was little. His father split without explanation when he was 6, and Ocean would say nothing about that to me other than that his dad was a failed musician who “went crazy” and made questionable hairstyle choices. In “There Will Be Tears,” one of the most autobiographical tracks from “Nostalgia, Ultra,” Ocean sings about having to hide his face because he doesn’t want his friends to see him crying over his father. A few weeks before my visit, Ocean tweeted, then rapidly deleted, a message about his father’s suing him for $1 million. When I brought it up, he said only, “Yeah, we can move past that.”
He moved with his mother from Long Beach, Calif., to New Orleans, where he lived until he was almost 18. His mother’s father, Lionel, became his de facto father for a while, and also the reason that the young Christopher Breaux — Ocean’s name before he changed it in 2010 — was known as Lonny. (His managers and friends still call him that.) Most of the pleasures that he recalls from his childhood were solitary: climbing onto neighboring rooftops, listening to music with his headphones on, reading. He didn’t stick with team sports because, as he put it, “I didn’t enjoy things I couldn’t envision myself being the best at.”
But there was also a deeper kind of solitude, and a deeper kind of doubt. He told me a long story about realizing suddenly, one day, that he and his mother and everybody they knew were going to die. “I said: ‘I’m going to die. You’re going to die, Mom.’ And she said, ‘I’m not going anywhere anytime soon.’ That’s what you say, I guess. I guess. But I just remember sitting there, trying to imagine nothing. Nothingness and forgetting and all of those things I feared. And that can’t not affect you and your belief system a little bit.”
His grandmother was Pentecostal Evangelical, and his mother and her siblings were teased as kids for being “holy rollers.” “I never sang or played in church,” Ocean wrote in one of his first Tumblr posts. “I remember being kind of intimidated by the idea of it actually. Church was the ’hood Juilliard to me. All the coldest musicians came out of there.” Eventually he left his mother’s church and struck out on his own, attending Catholic Mass for a while and then a small Lutheran school, though that was less about religion than discipline. “I got kicked out of every school I went to,” Ocean said. “The last school that kicked me out had a folder of [expletive] that I had done. They sent the folder in a manila envelope to my house.”
He was drawn toward music at first not because of any burning urge toward art or self-expression; it was about having a different set of opportunities. “It was about the freedom and the mobility that having money would allow me,” he said. Ocean stuck with academics long enough to graduate from John Ehret High School, then enrolled at the University of New Orleans to study English in the fall of 2005. But against his mother’s wishes, he went deeper into making music, writing rudimentary songs on an old Triton keyboard. When Katrina hit in August 2005, Ocean transferred briefly to the University of Louisiana in Lafayette but then quickly decided to leave. When a friend in Los Angeles promised to give him a deal on some studio time, Ocean packed up his car and set out.
“This is our life,” Chris Clancy said, with a mixture of pride and resignation. We were sitting in the dining room of the Clancy house in Miracle Mile, in Los Angeles, where two members of Odd Future had just shown up within minutes of each other. Each made obscene gestures at us from the front yard, then bounced into the house asking what was for dinner. Chris is an earnest, thoughtful guy, a 10-year veteran of Interscope records who worked with Eminem; Kelly, who co-manages Ocean with her husband, worked at Interscope for seven years and also serves as a kind of den mother. (Taco, one of the O.F. members who had shown up, was demanding that she cook him Japanese fried chicken.)
“Boys would come in and out, just like you’re seeing,” Kelly told me. In 2010, Ocean befriended Tyler Okonma, the outspoken ringleader of Odd Future known as Tyler, the Creator, and eventually Ocean started showing up at the Clancys along with the rest of the crew. The family vibe clearly appealed to him. “Frank would come in,” Kelly said, “but he wouldn’t say much. He was the quiet one. He wouldn’t ever say he was coming by. He would just pop up randomly and then kind of just sit there.”
When Ocean first came out to L.A. in 2006, his money ran out before he ever came close to getting his record done. To support himself, he worked as a “sandwich artist” at Subway, at Fatburger, Kinko’s, AT&T, and as a claims processor at Allstate, among other jobs. Eventually he discovered that it was possible to make money writing songs for other people; he knew he could sing, so he connected with producers and musicians who submitted tracks for major-label artists. The producers made the sonic beds and Ocean helped write lyrics and melodies, contributing to songs that would eventually be recorded by artists like Justin Bieber (“Bigger”), Brandy (“1st and Love”) and John Legend (“Quickly”).
Even then, he bristled at interference. “I had a problem listening to anybody,” he said. “I had a problem listening to A.-and-R.’s telling me how a song was supposed to sound, or what this artist’s vibe was.” As his profile grew, he began to work with producers and beat makers who liked his writing style and would let him use their studios free. Toward the end of 2008, he was making enough money to devote himself to music full time. He moved out of his apartment at 28th and Crenshaw and into a nicer place in Beverly Hills. In time he caught the attention of Christopher (Tricky) Stewart, the producer behind such hits as Rihanna’s “Umbrella” and Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies.” Stewart helped Ocean make a go of it as a solo artist and get signed to Def Jam at the end of 2009.
The deal didn’t work out the way Ocean hoped. “I don’t know where to begin,” he said when I asked him what went wrong. “I think ultimately the problem with it was that nobody was ready to act on anything, any of the language [of the contract], except the language to keep me in it.” Def Jam never gave him a recording budget and basically left him on the shelf. After twisting for several months, Ocean decided to write and produce a record on his own. He solicited beats and backing tracks from friends, and he trolled the Internet for instrumentals to popular songs that he could repurpose with his own melodies and lyrics. (His piano skills at the time were pretty basic — today he takes piano and music-theory lessons every morning except Sundays — so he wasn’t going to write a record by sitting down at the keyboard.)
As Lonny Breaux, Ocean often relied on easy rhymes and formulaic song structures. Those are the kinds of songs that sell. There is a “Lonny Breaux Collection” available online, featuring some of the songs he wrote with and for others before “Nostalgia.” He was upset when these were leaked and claims that he didn’t even write several of them, but as a group they provide a clear indication of the kind of work he was doing before he struck out on his own. On “Nostalgia, Ultra,” as Frank Ocean, he could write for himself. The second song on the mixtape — a track called “Novacane” — was his announcement that he was going to be a different kind of songwriter. The song begins with a loose and sinister-sounding syncopated drum loop, and then Ocean’s voice enters with a condemnation of most popular music that doubles as a metaphor for how little he finds himself able to feel about the world around him: “I think I started something/I got what I wanted/Didn’t I?/Can’t feel nothin’, superhuman/Even when I’m [having sex], Viagra popping/Every single record auto-tuning/Zero emotion, muted emotion/Pitch-corrected, computed emotion. . . .”
(Much of what you hear on the radio today is auto-tuned, meaning “pitch-corrected,” because many of the stars can’t sing. Auto-tuning in limited doses can slip by unnoticed, but the more you use it, the less human the vocal sounds.)
The rest of the track outlines a relationship that Ocean — or the character he has assumed for narrative purposes — has with a woman he meets at the rock festival Coachella. They smoke grass together, have sex and then part. After, Ocean drifts through a series of other sexual couplings but can’t recreate the feeling he had with this one woman. The disinhibition he experiences initially allows him to escape his life for a while, but later he finds himself numb in a way that he can’t convert into anything other than listlessness and apathy. He wants her back so he can feel the kind of nothing that he felt with her. The concept of numbness shifts within the song, and throughout you sense an intelligence operating, a complex story unfolding in deceptively simple terms. Unpredictable internal rhyme, metaphor, double meaning, regret for love lost or never possessed in the first place: these are the hallmarks of what has since become Ocean’s writing style.
Two weeks after releasing “Nostalgia,” as buzz around the record was building — with people like Sean Puff Daddy/P. Diddy Combs calling the Clancys and asking, “Who is this guy?” — Ocean took to Twitter to get a few things off his chest: “I woke up today feeling like all my followers should know that . . . my record label slept on me . . . i. did. this. not ISLAND DEF JAM. that’s why you see no label logo on the artwork that I DID. guess its my fault for trusting my dumbass lawyer and signing my career over to a failing company. [expletive] Def Jam & any company that goes the length of signing a kid with dreams & talent w/no intention of following through . . . now back to my day. I want some oatmeal and toast.”
Ten days later, Ocean would be in the studio with Beyoncé, at her invitation, to collaborate on a track for her album “4.”
Barry Weiss, who had just taken over as the chairman and chief executive of Island/Def Jam, invited Ocean to a meeting at his office in New York in April 2011 in an effort to get to know him. (Some at Ocean’s own label hadn’t even realized, at first, that Frank Ocean and Lonny Breaux were one and the same.) “He felt sort of unappreciated,” Weiss told me, putting it mildly.
As “Nostalgia” continued to gain attention, Ocean’s team would call Weiss to demand more money for Ocean’s follow-up record, “Channel Orange.” “Frank was so bullish and so optimistic and so confident about the album that he was creating that he had his representatives call us up and say that he deserves a lot more money,” Weiss says. “I don’t believe that I had actually heard anything at that point. But we did something atypical, that most labels I don’t think would do. We stepped up. We wrote the check. Virtually album-unheard, sight-unseen, we believed so much in this guy that we actually wrote the check.” Ocean has claimed in the past that he demanded $1 million. When I asked about that, Weiss said only, “I plead the fifth.”
A couple of weeks before “Channel Orange” was released, Ocean wrote a post on his Tumblr: “Orange reminds me of the summer I first fell in love. Awww. . . . ” Less than a week later, in the post that revealed how important that first love had been for him, he wrote: “I wanted to create worlds that were rosier than mine. I tried to channel overwhelming emotions.” Channel. Orange.
To write the songs for “Channel Orange,” Ocean turned to James Ryan Ho, a producer who goes by the name Malay. He would become Ocean’s most creative partner in the making of the record. As Ocean remembers it, on their first day together, with Malay at the console and Ocean in the vocal booth, they came up with “Super Rich Kids,” one of the fan favorites from the record. Over the next two days, they wrote the 10-minute track “Pyramids.”
There was very little talking in the studio. This is a common refrain for people who work with Ocean. (Da’Jon, a young cousin from New Orleans who was living with Ocean when I visited, said that they sometimes go days without speaking to each other, and that he would occasionally ask Ocean if everything was O.K., just to be sure.) While Malay created the musical beds, Ocean would type on his laptop, humming melodies and trying out combinations. For mood they sometimes had an old movie playing in the background with no sound, and in later stages Ocean put up posters of Pink Floyd and Bruce Lee for inspiration. Ocean’s tastes are eclectic, drawing on everything from Wes Anderson movies to Radiohead and Celine Dion. “The next thing you know, Frank’s like, ‘Let me go in the booth,’ ” Malay told me, “and then he just lays it down. He’s kind of like an M.C.,” he went on, “like a rapper. Rappers come in, and they just write lyrics and drop it down, and he’s that same way, but obviously his lyrical concepts and melody concepts are ridiculous.”
After a couple of months of on-and-off work with Malay, Ocean had skeleton versions of every song that would appear on “Channel Orange,” including the nonsong interludes that create so much of the record’s ambient appeal. On a dry-erase board in his apartment, he wrote the names of the songs and the interludes with a red Sharpie and began playing around with their placement. “Even though they were all sketches,” Ocean says, “there was so much comfort, because I heard in my head how it was going to sound. Now all I’ve got to do is finish it.” Once he arrived at the final album order, with nine months of recording still ahead of him, the sequence never changed.
In June 2011, Ocean tapped Om’Mas Keith, another producer in Los Angeles, to help him turn his sketches into major-label-release-ready album cuts. They decided to focus first on vocals — leads, harmonies — and then they went back into the studio to perfect the music. “Crack Rock” and “Monks” got live drum sounds. “Sweet Life” went from being a digital track created by Pharrell Williams to a live, full-throated jam. They made use of every technique they could think of: for the ominous strings on “Bad Religion,” they had only a few string players to work with. So the engineer, Jeff Ellis, arranged seating for a large string section in Studio 1 of EastWest Studios, the same room where Frank Sinatra recorded “My Way,” and then used a pair of old stereo ribbon microphones to capture the sound. The players sat in different seats each time they played along with the track, so that when they mixed all of the takes together at the end, it would sound as if they had filled the room with musicians.
“This is the Michael Jackson way of making records,” Om’Mas told me. He called Ocean “the shepherd” of the whole process. “I just credit Frank with being an extreme visionary, even in how he put the process together. It’s a blueprint that people are going to try to follow. But if you don’t have a vision, you can’t follow it, because you won’t get anywhere.”
After the recording was complete, Ocean played “Channel Orange” for Rick Rubin, the legendary producer and founder of Def Jam. Rubin was impressed by the rawness and power of Ocean’s vocals, and he urged him not to mess around with the recordings too much. He was also struck by Ocean’s process for a song like “Pilot Jones,” for which Ocean wrote the melody to one backing track and then, with Malay’s help, created a completely different backing track once the melody was complete. “It’s really interesting that he uses seed ideas or tools to write that really don’t have anything to do with the song,” Rubin told me. “It’s just a way for him to access himself, and then the song comes out, and then the track is built around what he writes.” (Ocean said to me, of writing “Pilot Jones,” “I was like, ‘I gotta get this song out.’ I always knew the track would have to change.”)
The first time Jeff Ellis heard the full finished record was at a listening party that Def Jam held just before “Channel Orange” was released. “In the studio, sometimes it seems like a really great album, but you can be deluding yourself,” Ellis says. “I didn’t want to be that guy: ‘It’s a hit! It’s a hit!’ ” But as he sat in the room with Ocean, Ocean’s mom and a bunch of reporters, radio people and label people, watching everybody slowly freaking out, he finally understood what Ocean had achieved. “From the first day,” Ellis says, “Frank never talked about what his vision was. He just executed on it.”
Ocean is probably right, as far as the music goes: you’re better off just pressing play. That’s the only way to experience the seediness and desperation that he is able to load onto a minute detail, like a floor-model television; it’s also the only way to find yourself inexplicably screaming: “Crack Rock! Crack Rock!” along with Ocean, marveling at how slyly he has converted you by making the catchiest song on the record about the drug that hits fastest and is the hardest to shake. Vocally, he can do whatever he wants with his falsetto — woodwind, siren, everything in between — but mostly he just wants you to hear the songs, to locate without diversion the moments that refract the emotional content of the stories. “Crack Rock” is about drugs, to be sure, but when you hear that the addict’s family won’t let him hold an infant, you suddenly find yourself inside of the story, empathizing in ways you might never have expected to.
Drugs are the record’s dominant (and tragic) motif, but the true concern of “Channel Orange” is the inextricable mingling of love and loneliness, the attachment and disillusionment and euphoria and addiction and pain that result from losing yourself in something or someone else. As Ocean put it to me, “We’re talking about substances, but we forget how intoxicating things that aren’t tangible, things that aren’t chemical substances, are. You forget about it. I’m saying, you know, love. Power. Money, which is power. Freedom. Honesty. Because that explicit truth I was talking about” — a reference to his open letter on Tumblr — “probably had the same effect [on me] as heroin does on some people.”
The church-organ, deconstructed gospel confessional “Bad Religion” is the one undeniable masterpiece on the album. It is pure. In the song, Ocean is in a cab, talking to a driver who barely understands him. He wants to tell this man his secrets, to pour out his heart, in part because he knows the cabby won’t understand. It’s a metaphor for the record itself, for the act of making art, for how hard it is to tell anybody anything, for Ocean’s life in all of those years when he was hiding. The second verse, to the end:
I swear I’ve got three lives
Balanced on my head like steak knives
I can’t tell you the truth about my disguise
I can’t trust no one. . . .
If it brings me to my knees
It’s a bad religion
To me it’s nothing but a
And cyanide in my
I could never make him love me.
It’s a bad religion
To be in love with someone
Who could never love you
Only bad religion
Could have me feeling the way I do.
Forget about the pronouns. Who can hear those lines the way Ocean sings them and not see themselves, at some point in their lives? And who, after the rare scream that Ocean allows himself on this track, knowing all that we know about him, can fail to know that it is real?
It’s a different world in the music business these days. Ocean has built so much power on his own, through his music and through his direct connection with his fans, that now he can afford to dig his heels in. When I asked Barry Weiss, the chairman of Def Jam, if they basically followed Ocean’s lead at this point, he said: “It’s all case by case. We have our differences of opinion. It’s like a marriage. You have ups, you have downs, but we give him a lot of autonomy because the guy’s brilliant.” In other words, he did not say “no.” When I asked Ocean if Def Jam asked him for another record, he said, “Oh, they learned a long time ago they can’t really tell me what to do,” and then he laughed. At another point he said he wouldn’t go into acting because studio heads can blackball you in Hollywood. “I don’t like the idea of there being somebody who could break me,” he said. “There’s no head of a label right now who could break me.”
“Everyone knows the record industry is falling apart,” Chris Clancy told me. “Frank says: ‘Let’s be progressive. What can we do?’ The record business is what you can’t do. The metrics of success: Soundscan, BDS. . . . ” — BDS is a measure of radio plays and still something of a bible for record labels — “If you’re playing that game, you’re in a world that’s shrinking.” Ocean thought enough of radio to release a 9-minute-53-second song as a single. And it’s not just radio, or his label: he will be performing at the Grammys this weekend, but he was willing to do so only if they let him play the song he wanted to play. Otherwise, he would have been happy to sit in the audience.
Ocean’s way hasn’t been entirely smooth. When he played the first weekend at Coachella in April, his first live show with a band, the sound was abysmal. At the biggest show of his life up to that point, he had to cut a song off halfway through. He said he fired the entire band and played the second weekend with a different lineup, to much better effect — but his live performance is still evolving. He’s also had a couple of uncomfortable brushes with the law, and with another artist. A feud with the notoriously violent and thin-skinned singer Chris Brown began on Twitter in June 2011 and included a couple of Brown’s associates following Ocean’s car after he left a studio. They posted footage of their interaction — the cars side by side, threats being hollered through open windows — to Worldstar Hip-Hop, a Web site that does many things but mostly hosts videos of fights. Ocean made an oblique mention of that situation when we were together, but I thought it was over. Then last month, the feud boiled over again, with conflicting reports that agreed on one thing: There had been an altercation between Ocean and Brown and a few other people on the street in Santa Monica.
These are the kinds of traps that lie in wait for Ocean, now that he has achieved this level of success. He springs from the hypermasculine world of hip-hop and R.&B., and yet even as his music defies those genre characterizations, he seems unable or unwilling to escape them. Maybe he feels he has to overcompensate in the bravado department, given what he has revealed of himself. I found Ocean to be at his most relaxed and natural when he was being humble, talking about cars and joking around about his piano skills.
So what’s next? Ocean told me he was headed to Shanghai after the Grammys with his equipment in tow, some new recordings already in hand, and plans to write “in remote locations for the next two years.” In previous interviews he mentioned also wanting to write a book. “I’ve started writing the book,” he told me. “You can say that. It’s fiction, and it’s about brothers. That’s all I’m going to say.”
Whatever the book ends up being about, Ocean’s music is full of suffering, and there are any number of artists who define themselves that way. “I hope not to define myself by suffering,” he told me. He repeated a few times that his Tumblr post had “cured” his depression, that he was finally over the relationship and that he was happy now.
“I don’t worry about where [the inspiration] will come from,” he said. “I think even with that cured, there’s still so much to pull from.” He didn’t think of the pain that he went through as a gift, he said. “I know people like to say that. You know, ‘It’s a gift and a curse.’ It’s not a gift. I don’t believe that. I believe it’s just pain. The gift would be the gift whether I went through it or not. We’d just be having a different conversation.”
In “There Will Be Tears,” Ocean sings, “You can’t miss what you ain’t had/Well I can, and I’m sad.” His music longs for things past and possible happiness lost, the kind of thing we all do when we look back and simultaneously romanticize the past and wish it had been different. Even the interludes on his records — the whirring cassette players and analog alarm clocks and recondite movie audio — are of an era that Ocean was mostly too young to have experienced directly, as are the old BMWs he rebuilds with such care. But he longs for these things just the same, and his creative triumph is that he has found his own musical and lyrical language to express that longing. Nostalgia, ultra.
“Art’s everything we hope life would be, a lot of times,” Ocean said to me as we sat outside the BMW repair shop in North Hollywood, speaking to each other in the dark. “That’s what I get from it. And that’s what I’ve tried to do. In the storytelling and the sonics and everything. That’s what I’ve tried to do, because I just think that’s the purpose of art. Push, you know?”
I told him I thought that he had succeeded in that.
“Thank you,” he said.