Creating His Own Gravity
“When I think about the term ‘running away,’ probably it’s not the right one,” Mr. Ocean said as Everest was sniffing at some greenery. “It’s more I decided to do something different, so that I might have a different outlook.” He added, “When they’re emotional things you can’t run away from them anyway.”
It’s certainly tougher to do so when they’ve been etched into song. “Channel Orange” (Island Def Jam), his beautiful first full-length studio album, will be released this month, and it’s rife with the sting of unrequited love, both on the receiving and inflicting ends. Mr. Ocean, 24, is an extremely unflashy songwriter, avoiding big proclamations and broad brush strokes, instead leaning on conversational gambits and the power of detail. He makes warm, cloudy soul with echoes of Stevie Wonder, Prince and Pharrell Williams that’s almost never about seduction. In Mr. Ocean’s universe, pretty much everyone is broken beyond repair. While clearly part of a robust historical lineage Mr. Ocean is also at the forefront of a larger push-back against the stasis in contemporary R&B, something in evidence in his organic vamps but also in the Weeknd’s narcotized lust and even mainstream dance music hybrids. And Mr. Ocean’s dissents are starting to have wider effect. He’s written for Beyoncé and has collaborated with Jay-Z and Kanye West.
Back in the house he slid into the bench behind the huge slab of wood that serves as the dining room table, while Everest lolled outside in the patio area. His “gloriously painful love life,” as he described it, has left its mark on his songwriting, particularly as he’s made the shift from writing for others to writing for himself. Two particular relationships haunt this album: one in which he was in control, one in which he wasn’t.
“I’m getting away from both,” he said, using his hands to gesture at two imagined people in front of him, explaining his circumstance to the one he’s disappointed: “You’ll say anything to keep me around. I’ll say anything to keep this one around.”
Finding a way to detach, he admitted, is part self-preservation, part strategy, but he knows it’s better for him to make a clean break. He’s tried going cold turkey before. A few months ago on his Tumblr he started a countdown: “Day 1,” “Day 2.” At “Day 7,” he added “It gets easier.”
“Zero contact — that’s what that was,” he said. After “Day 8” the trail went dry.
“I’ve given three and a half years of my life to that situation and situations like it,” he said. On Tuesday night, Mr. Ocean took to his Tumblr to tell the story of his first love, which was with a man. “I don’t have any secrets I need kept any more,” he wrote. (That was too late to include in the print version of this article, which will appear in the Arts & Leisure section on Sunday.)
“I’ve written some great things,” he added. “That’s a gift, but there’s consequences. Yeah, you get this great work, but you suffer. You really, really suffer.”
That’s absolutely clear from “Channel Orange,” which is filled with lovers who tantalize but remain at arm’s length. On “Pyramids,” a long, astral trip of shimmery funk, he laments a woman who gets dressed up for her job at a strip club while the protagonist agonizes at home, unemployed:
I’ll watch you fix your hair
Then put your panties on
In the mirror
Then your lipstick
Then your six-inch heels
She’s headed to the Pyramid
She’s working at the Pyramid tonight
On both “Sweet Life” and “Super Rich Kids” the well-off are presented as both alluring and dangerous. On “Pilot Jones” it’s drugs that create an impregnable wall: “Tonight you came stumbling across my lawn again/I just don’t know why/I keep on trying to keep a grown woman sober.”
When he was young, Mr. Ocean, born Christopher Breaux, would accompany his grandfather to 12-step meetings, where, he said, his grandfather, who had struggled with alcohol, heroin and crack, served as a mentor for other addicts.
“It totally ingrained this fear of addiction and of anything that could cause me to be addicted,” he said — love included.
Mr. Ocean comes from a big family; his mother still lives in New Orleans, and his grandfather took on the role of father figure after Mr. Ocean’s own father disappeared when he was 6. He took to singing and songwriting at a young age, paying for his first studio sessions with money he earned washing cars. His mother wasn’t thrilled, at least in part because his father was “a keyboardist and vocalist that never popped off,” he recalled.
When he was a teenager, Mr. Ocean began to find ways to hide in plain sight. After being booted from a small private school for fighting, among other things, he transferred to a big public high school. “I remember getting there,” he said, “and being so happy to be there ’cause I could disappear.”
That began a theme. Plenty of times things come out in songs that he hasn’t been able to articulate to the people in his life, he said. “I wouldn’t do it all if there wasn’t that catharsis,” he said of songwriting. “It’s definitely an extension of my talk therapy.” Mr. Ocean isn’t quite a stoic, but he moves with a reserve that keeps people at a distance until he feels comfortable, at which point his arms open wide. “I’m extremely compassionate, loving, all of those warm fuzzy things, but the outer shell doesn’t project that all the time,” he said.
In Odd Future, the Los Angeles hip-hop collective, he plays the role of big brother. “He’s what I imagine Rick Rubin’s like, all-wise,” said Earl Sweatshirt, who, after returning from Samoa earlier this year, became close with Mr. Ocean. “He’s the voice of reason.”
As a young songwriter Mr. Ocean was profligate, writing for and with a variety of artists, hoping to establish himself. Songs he wrote were recorded by Brandy and Justin Bieber, among others. “I had to change my circumstance,” he said of the urgency that gripped that part of his life. “The artist in me hates to say that now, but it was about money, it was about access, it was about nice things.”
Songs from this era were collected in “The Lonny Breaux Collection,” an easy-to-find samizdat zip file put together by fans online, the existence of which still makes Mr. Ocean wince a bit. (Many of the songs are reference vocals Mr. Ocean wrote for other singers, and most are unfinished.)
Last year, after languishing on Def Jam, to which he had been signed for some time, he released “Nostalgia, Ultra,” a sumptuous mixtape full of left-field soul, interpolations of notable rock songs and deeply mature songwriting. Aided by his affiliation with Odd Future, it arrived with impact; “Novacane,” a song from that album, even landed in the Billboard Hot 100.
Soon Mr. Ocean was wanted on his own terms. He contributed two hooks to “Watch the Throne”(Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam/Roc Nation), last year’s collaborative album by Jay-Z and Kanye West, and was invited to work with Beyoncé in the studio for a week, resulting in “I Miss You,” which appeared on her latest album, “4” (Columbia).
“She came in and heard the song, and she shed a tear and recorded it,” he recalled, “and I wanted to shed a tear.”
There was also a collaboration with Nas, “No Such Thing as White Jesus,” that was unfortunately lost to a technological mishap. Mr. Ocean expressed regret that album deadlines prevented him from recreating the song from scratch, and he broke into song to capture what was lost:
Whatever you do, young king, don’t wind up dead
Young queen, cross your legs,
Put a crown on your head and remove the chains
’Cause even diamond chains are for slaves,
Don’t set foot in no penitentiary
And don’t taste the poison
Don’t you bail on your families
It’s signature Frank Ocean: dignified, quasi-political, cerebral without being disdainful, fleetingly hopeful. If that bears little resemblance to the center of what’s happening on the radio — the same can certainly be said for the bulk of “Channel Orange” — so be it: Mr. Ocean appears to be creating his own gravity.
“When I did have some success, it further emboldens you to be like, ‘No, I’m just going to write what I feel I should write,’ ” he said. “Channel Orange” is full of such gestures, buffered with warm guitars and keyboards, often with urgent drums clamoring for attention underneath. Large parts of the album were recorded at Eastwest Studio here, in rooms where the Beach Boys and Frank Sinatra recorded, and where some of the equipment remains unchanged.
That furthers the intimacy of this album, as does the spare and judicious use of guests: Earl Sweatshirt, dissolute and tart on “Super Rich Kids”; John Mayer, who briefly adds flair to “White Heat”; and André 3000, whose verses on “Pink Matter” are dryly boastful, and whose offhand splays of guitar outshine Mr. Mayer’s.
There’s also a series of interludes, inspired by television, that stitch the album into a unified whole that, again, Mr. Ocean hopes speaks loudly enough that he can disappear behind it. “The work is the work,” he said. “The work is not me. I like the anonymity that directors can have about their films. Even though it’s my voice, I’m a storyteller.”
Accordingly, his name’s not on the album cover. It appears in the television ads, but he had to be talked into it.
“As a lifestyle you always being the focal point is innately unhealthy,” Mr. Ocean said.
Everest is credited as the album’s executive producer.
To Be Continued….