Each generation of music has a specific sound reflective of the time in which it is written. The music of the 60s was characterized by the rebelliousness of rock music. The 80s witnessed the birth of hip hop as urban culture grew and developed. Today’s emerging artists have the world at their fingertips in the form of the Internet, through which platforms such as YouTube and SoundCloud allow anyone to put their abilities on display. Among the most successful zero-to-hero Internet sensation musicians is Frank Ocean, a bisexual Black male who gained a cult following due to his ability to combine modern urban culture with timeless, retro sounds.
The age of Internet Music has introduced a new standard in which artists of any background have the opportunity to put forth any sound, allowing for a broader spectrum of musicians who are able to connect directly to an audience rather than having to conform to the will of a record label or specific popular genre. As a result, the music of today has taken on a new tone– cynicism, enigma, and the embracement of deep and often dark emotion. Many of today’s most famous artists, such as Billie Eilish and the late XXXTentacion (who gained fame through SoundCloud and YouTube respectively), produce music with skeptical undertones and hidden messages, often criticizing society and drawing attention to dark, personal thoughts.
Christopher Edwin Breaux, better known by his stage name Frank Ocean, is an American singer and songwriter who quickly gained a devoted fan base after he self-released his mixtape, Nostalgia, Ultra, in 2011. Ocean’s music was revolutionary to the music of the present era due to its unique layering of decades’ worth of musical styles and sounds. It was a tribute to the music of past generations while honoring the emotional mysteriousness of today’s. Ocean layers nostalgic, retro beats and melodies with introspective, multidimensional lyrics that are deeply personal to his experience as a bisexual Black man raised in New Orleans and to American life as a whole. He now has nearly 14 million monthly listeners on Spotify.
This article will explore Ocean’s music chronologically, identifying and analyzing the elements of his mixtape and albums that have allowed him to establish himself as a unique artist and to inspire such a massive fanbase.
Nostalgia, Ultra – 2011
Nostalgia, Ultra (stylized nostalgia,ULTRA) is a heavily-sampled 14-song mixtape that Ocean self-released in February of 2011. He became inspired to make the mixtape after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina forced him and his family to relocate from New Orleans to Los Angeles, CA. The mixtape, living up to its title, is composed of fourteen distinct songs conveying different emotions, all of which he ties together into the theme of nostalgia. The songs contain a dreamy, retro sound. However, the transitions between songs feature abrupt sound effects such as the buzzing of an alarm clock or the ejection of a CD, serving as a wake-up call to the listener and adding a unique, realistic spin to the mixtape’s ethereal sound.
When listeners pay closer attention to the lyrics, they notice a somewhat disconcerting contrast between the tone of the music and of the lyrics. In the song Strawberry Swing, a sample from Coldplay, the listener hears Ocean speaking to an old friend through his lyrics atop a peaceful, happy beat. He expresses a pessimistic view of the future and a sense that the world is ending, and feels obligated to honor his past memories with his friend. Ocean tells his friend, “Just in case an atom bomb comes falling on my lawn, I should say, and you should hear…. I have loved the good times here.”
In another song in the mixtape, American Wedding, Ocean describes himself taking a walk on the beach and reflecting on a story from his youth — a (fictional) juvenile Ocean married a girl in secret for the thrill of it, only to get an annulment within weeks. In the story, the girl turns in a college paper in which she expresses sympathy for “oppressed” women in other countries and criticizes the extremity of arranged marriages. However, the rest of the story Ocean unravels in the 7-minute song inspires listeners to reflect on the lost meaning of weddings in American culture, which Ocean suggests is an extreme in itself. He sings over a sample of The Eagles’ “Hotel California,” to symbolize the eternal bond which marriage is supposed to symbolize. Ocean sings “It’s just an American wedding / They don’t mean too much, they don’t last enough / We had an American wedding / Now what’s mine is yours, American divorce.”
Channel Orange – 2012
Ocean’s second album is a radiant, harmonious collection of songs conveying messages that bear heavy personal significance to Ocean himself. Through it, Ocean flexed his R&B muscle, displaying his breadth and ability to jump from genre to genre without hesitation. Whereas Nostalgia, Ultra focused on society as a whole, Channel Orange is a more introspective album in which Ocean shares his inner thoughts, emotions, and complexity in the form of melodic flourishes and a virtuoso take on R&B.
The song Sierra Leone tells a story of developing maturity as a young, irresponsible (and once again, fictional) Ocean becomes a father. The song features harmonious, gospel-esque chanting and a melody that shifts throughout the song’s duration. In the beginning of the song, Ocean sings,
“We’re behaving like teenagers
Making less than minimum wage
Still inside our parents homes.”
In the song’s outro, he sings:
“Tonight I’ll lay her in the cradle if it’s time to go to sleep
I’ll sing a Lennon lullaby, she can have a pretty dream
Baby girl, if you knew what I know….”
Ocean’s shift in maturity from the song’s beginning to end, as well as his expression of willingness to be present in his child’s life, is a reflection of his own early childhood experiences. Ocean’s own father left his family when he was five years of age. In “Sierra Leone,” Ocean conveys his determination to give his own future child a different experience and rise to the challenges of parenthood.
Bad Religion dives into Ocean’s own personal battle with religion due to his bisexuality. In the song, Ocean gets into a taxi and pleads, “Taxi driver, be my shrink for the hour.” He sings soulfully and emotionally about his struggle to reconcile his “sin” with God, in whose eyes he feels irredeemable. The entire song features a double meaning, and the lyrics can be interpreted to be about either God, or Ocean’s male first love (who he’d spoken about earlier in an open letter), or both. Ocean sings, “I can never make him love me.” The word “him” can either refer to Ocean’s first love being a straight male, or to God, who Ocean believes will never love him due to the sin of his sexuality. Ocean goes on to sing, “It’s a bad religion to be in love with someone who could never love you.” Once again, the lyric carries a double meaning. “Religion” could refer to Ocean’s way of life, and his personal heartbreak from falling in love with a man who didn’t feel the same. He could also literally be referring to religion, and mourning what he feels to be unrequited love in his relationship with God.
To analyze Channel Orange without honoring the song Pyramids would be an injustice to the musical genius Ocean displays in this track. The ten-minute long, beautifully nuanced epic outlines the role of Black women throughout history as they went from royalty in the ancient homelands of Africa to their present-day treatment and degradation in American society. Ocean sings atop an urgent-sounding blend of electronic beats and trap drums as he exclaims that “The throne of our queen is empty… They have taken Cleopatra, the jewel of Africa.” The song then shifts to a more mellow R&B-esque beat as Ocean regretfully sings that “Our queen has met her doom,” for the “Serpent in her room… has killed Cleopatra.” The imagery of the lyrics then shifts from the regal ancient Egypt to the modern Western world, where Cleopatra is “Working at the pyramid tonight.” Atop retro-sounding beats, Ocean’s metaphor in Pyramids is a criticism of Black women’s unfair journey from being queens of Africa to being degraded in a white man’s world- a perfect blend of the sounds of past generations and the critical lyrics of current ones.
Blonde – 2016
Ocean’s third album was critical in allowing him to gain as large of a fanbase as he has today. The album carries a central theme of childhood and coming of age, with more psychedelic, indie-rock beats rather than R&B. It revolves less around Ocean’s personal struggles and more around the ups and downs of growing up.
Blonde is melodic and innocent, transitioning from the emotional, melancholy R&B sounds of Channel Orange.
One of the most well-known songs in the album, Ivy is a nostalgic serenade to a childhood lover. In it, Ocean explores the memories of a failed relationship and reflects on the mistakes that caused its end. The artist told the New York Times that Ivy was his take on an audial collage. “How we experience memory sometimes, it’s not linear,” Ocean told the Times. “We’re not telling the stories to ourselves, we know the story, we’re just seeing it in flashes overlaid.”
The song’s innocent, enchanting lyrics match its light yet emotional melody. Ocean sings, “I thought that I was dreaming when you said you loved me / The start of nothing, I had no chance to prepare, I couldn’t see you coming,” representing the sudden and premature transformation of a deep, intimate friendship into a relationship. Ocean was too young and not mentally or emotionally ready to handle a relationship. He also didn’t have the maturity to differentiate between platonic and romantic love.
When the relationship failed, it destroyed their friendship as well. Ocean tells the subject that he understands if he/she feels hatred for Ocean, because he asserts that they “both know that deep down the feeling still deep down is good,” due to the fond memories they shared. He recalls these memories in a melancholy reverence, regretting that they’ll “never be those kids again.”
Pink + White is another psychedelic, gospel-inspired ode to urban coming-of-age. Ocean’s colorful allusions comment on mankind’s relationship with the environment. He regrets the destruction of earth’s natural state, but accepts it as a seemingly unchangeable truth of the industrialized world in which he grew up. Ocean sings that “We’ve got no control if the sky is pink and white, if the ground is black and yellow.” Pink and white sunsets are a result of air pollution, and black and yellow most likely refers to asphalt which contains and blocks nature.
The artist then extends the lesson of accepting what we can’t control to relate to his own childhood living in the effects of Hurricane Katrina. He sings, “In the wake of a hurricane…. Nosedive into flood lines…. It’s the same way you showed me, cannonball of the porch side, older kids trying off the roof.” In “Pink + White”, Ocean is speaking and reflecting to a childhood friend who taught him to accept what he couldn’t change and make the best of every situation, much like children diving and swimming in flood water after a hurricane.
Chanel – 2017
Ocean once again explored his characteristic theme of duality, specifically bisexuality, in his hit single Chanel. The song was one of Ocean’s biggest successes, and was instrumental in drawing in the large fan base he has today. Over a mellow R&B trap beat, Ocean sings “My guy pretty like a girl, and he got fight stories to tell, I see both sides like Chanel.” He reflects on masculinity and femininity and his love and appreciation for both, alluding to the double-sided symmetric C’s in the Chanel brand logo. It is unconfirmed whether or not the lyrics are an intentional homophone to the phrase “sea on both sides like channel,” indicating that there are “fish in the sea” on both sides of Ocean: males and females.
Due to the 4 year period between Ocean’s two albums– Channel Orange and Blonde— many fans and speculators hoped that 4 more years would yield a new album in 2020. However, the year has yet to reveal the new album, whether because of the challenges of COVID-19 or because of Ocean’s tendency to work at his own speed. Either way, anticipators can expect the new album to be less biographical and more fantastical than the last.
“If I start to tell a story and then I decide not to tell the story anymore, I can stop. It’s my story,” Ocean told W Magazine. “The expectation for artists to be vulnerable and truthful is a lot… In order for me to satisfy expectations, there needs to be an outpouring of my heart or my experiences in a very truthful, vulnerable way. I’m more interested in lies than that. Like, give me a full motion-picture fantasy.”
Frank Ocean’s unique ability to blend urban culture, cynical lyrics, and retro sounds has made him one of the most prominent faces of Internet music today. Through an ingenious and multidimensional mastery of allusions, metaphors, fantasies, personal truths, and homophones, his music is nuanced and allows for personal interpretation by the listener. Ocean, a Black, bisexual man, raised in the ruins of Hurricane Katrina in a state of financial hardship, is a symbol of the new opportunities Internet music has created for people to create music and gain a following regardless of their background. He also exemplifies the tendency of many emerging artists to take a cynical and pessimistic view of the world.
From R&B to vintage electric pop, Ocean’s versatility is unmatched, and he has music for everyone. The anticipation of his upcoming album grows every day as listeners wait to once again immerse themselves in Ocean’s fantastical world and find their own stories inside of it.