Perfect Sound Forever

FRANK OCEAN


by Phil Mitchell
(December 2013)


The Importance Of Being Frank-An Essay On Frank Ocean In 2011, a young singer and Beyonce ghost-writer hailing from New Orleans by the name of Frank Ocean made his statement with his debut mix tape, Nostalgia Ultra. With the soul of Marvin Gaye, the musical sensibilities of Brian Wilson, and a lyrical equivalent to the works of an e.e cummings or Jack Kerouac, Ocean carves himself out a unique niche in today's hip hop/neo soul world.

For Ocean, the song starts with a story, a fact that perhaps best summarized by the man himself in a BBC, 'Sounds of 2012' interview.

"What inspires me to make music is... I guess I'm just inspired to tell stories. And you got to make sure the listener is listening to you, and, so if you put in the form of the song, often times if the song is striking enough, then you can really deliver the story most effectively while keeping the ear of listener the whole time... so I guess it all starts with the story for me."

All music needs a great story to make it memorable, but in Frank's case, it's the consistency of the rich and varied themes he produces throughout his catalogue that separates him from his contemporaries. Ocean's Grammy winning, 2012 full album debut, Channel Orange, is a multi-layered scrapbook of people and places that come alive effortlessly by way of Ocean's striking and refreshing honesty. “Crack Rock" chronicles the lowest of a low point in the turbulent life of a helpless crack addict:

"You're shuckin and jiving
Stealing and robbing
To get the fixing that youre itching for
Your family stopped inviting you to things
Won't let you hold their infant
You used to get a little cut-up from time to time
But the freaks ain't trying to sleep with cracky"
As we reach the end of the song, Ocean shifts effortlessly from narrator to protagonist. 'Don't no one disturb the peace for riot. Don't no one disrupt nirvana. Don't no one wanna blow the high. Crack rock, Crack rock, Crack rock,' he pleads, like a broken-hearted lover would for one more chance at an ex's doorstep. But it's too late. The high is gone, and nirvana has slipped indefinitely from his consciousness. The beat continues to pulsate and the organ swirls about as the song abruptly transitions to the catchy “Pyramids."

Now, turn back to track seven and the world suddenly spins 360 degrees in the other direction, following the day in a life of rich and spoiled children who have grown tired of their luxurious and pampered lifestyles.

“Start my day up on the roof
There's nothing like this type of view
Point the clicker at the tube
I prefer expensive news
New car, new girl
New ice, new glass
New watch, good times babe
It's good times, yeah
She wash my back three times a day
This shower head feels so amazing
We'll both be high, the help don't stare
They just walk by, they must don't care
A million one, a million two
A hundred more will never do"
On Nostalgia Ultra's, “We All Try" Ocean sings,
“I don't believe in time travel
I don't believe our nation's flag is on the moon

I don't believe our lives are simple
and I don't believe they're short"
It's rather fitting that Ocean would make (what I can only presume to be) a tongue in cheek reference to time travel, because this is perhaps where the artist is his most comfortable: leapfrogging from life's extreme high points and low points with constant sincerity and depth that is uniquely his own. Whether it's the tale of a down and out crack addict, the lavish life styles of over privileged youth, or even the beloved Forest Gump, Ocean makes it easy for the listener to form deep connections with his songs.

Channel Orange's, “Sierra Leone" paints a vivid portrait of young lovers over the backdrop of a war-torn Sierra Leone. It's a truly beautiful tune that is filled with a deep sense of hope that in even the midst of the worst human atrocities, somehow, we can find a way for life to flourish amid the chaos and turbulence of life during wartime. It's heavy stuff, no doubt, but the production wraps you up in its warm production with a tender ease. At the bridge of the song, the string section swells, the brass dips low, and Ocean croons,

“And a new day will bring about the dawn
And a new day will bring another cryin' babe into the world (girl now)
Our daughter's reachin' for the nipple cause it's time for her to eat
Tonight I'll lay her in the cradle if it's time for go to sleep
I sing a Lennon lullaby, she can have a pretty dream"
At 25 years young, Frank Ocean has shown he is an artist willing to take chances and gargantuan artistic risks throughout his (understandably) small body of work. Although his music is filled with themes of bravado and machismo that is common place in the hip hop landscape, Ocean's is understated and tasteful: he doesn't demand your attention like so many others, but asks that you rather listen carefully instead. Much like the works of legendary hip hop innovators Tribe Called Quest and Common, Ocean produces a sophisticated hybrid of artfully crafted music that offers an extremely rewarding experience for the intent listener. More importantly, it's a music that isn't too high brow to forgo the power of a catchy hook. If what we have seen thus far is any indication of what is to come further down the road for Mr. Ocean, then we are all in for something both incredibly unique and, dare I say, near magical in nature.

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