How Frank Ocean tells Stories

Missing Frank ocean as usual, I came across a live performance I saw of Ivy. As the motif of the song starts to play, and the lights dimmed down to a golden yellow, he said something to crowd that went something like this:

“How many of you guys have been in love before? How many of you guys have had a breakup before? Use your mental energies to go back to that awful painful place like I have to when I’m up here and sing this song for me.”

I wondered, what does Frank mean by ‘mental energy’? And why does he admit to using it himself when singing Ivy?. Looking for answers, I found the BBC sound of 2012 Frank Ocean interview, one of the few official interviews Ocean agreed to attend, where he spoke about his debut mixtape Nostalgia ULTRA, and his inspirations.

“What inspires me to make music is… I guess i’m just inspired to tell stories.”

Frank starts off the interview by describing where his inspirations lie when working on his music.

When delving into his creative process and his inspirations for this album, Frank Ocean mentions that overall, he is inspired to tell stories with his music. This comment clarifies Frank’s request at that concert, and after some reflection, helped me understand Frank’s unique role is as an artist.

Frank Ocean: BBC News interview - BBC Sound of 2012 - YouTube
Frank Ocean being interviewed in the BBC sound of 2012

Frank is famous for his minimal public appearance, so the BBC sound of 2012 Frank Ocean interview was the first time I was able to catch a glimpse of his character. Watching him speak about his artwork and the process behind it, I couldn’t help but notice how he reminds me of an ancient Greek god of poetry, talking about his craft in an educated and deliberate manner. It was easy to picture a guy like him working long hours in the studio for up to 4 years so he can release a body of art that matches his intended vision and tells the stories he has in the most fitting way [quote him talking about working long hours].

Frank Ocean’s Thinking of You peaked at number 32 on the Billboard charts. Pitchfork named his second studio album Blonde was named the Best Album of the 2010s, and Tim Jonze from The Guardian called it “one of the most intriguing and contrary records ever made”. This artist made such an impact in the music industry possible without little to no social media or public image. Frank is actually known for being the most anonymous and least socially present artists of our century, especially in the age of artists trying to relate their art through social media platforms and influencing. He disappeared in 2012 after dropping Channel Orange, leaving fans with only his Tumblr and one official interview. By removing his image from his work like this, I find it makes listening to his music a more intimate, private experience. His music is where he can connect with his fans and how he has control of presenting himself to his audience solely. this obscure artist focuses on solely highlighting his art forms to tell his own story.

So everyone who is familiarized with Frank knows that he has the ability to evoke strong emotions out of everyone, and make personal connections to at least one of his songs, strong enough people cry listening to his songs. But how does Frank do it? Well, he does this by telling stories with his music. He creates narratives with his lyrics and embodies it with a musical journey that conveys the emotions from the narrative, using musical techniques to portray sensation, feelings and emotions to amplify his message. And as a proclaimed musical artist, he also reconstructs genres of music, and experiments with beats and instruments, and autotune vocals. This give listeners a completely unique and inspired musical experience. Adding his talent with using musical imagery to help tell his story- sonic goodies he calls them- he shows his artistic view of the world and he knows how to express these abstract ideas in his music.

NOSTALGIA ULTRA

Frank Ocean: Nostalgia, Ultra. Album Review | Pitchfork

Nostalgia Ultra, The 2011 released mixtape that was produced, written, composed and released by Frank Ocean, is a perfect starting point to begin understanding how he creates his story and his identity using his music.

This mixtape has a heavy R&B influence to it overall. Odd Future, the rap group Frank was involved in, promotes rebellion and the taboo and breaking rules to freely express. So at the time when Ne-Yo and Usher were setting the bar for Black R&B, he brought in the spirit of rebellion to reinvent R&B, playing around with that classic sound to create a surreal, dreamy nostalgic themes to the music. He took samples from all types of genres like electro indie, pop, rock, and jazz to blend all these music qualities to create a sound that could be hailed one of the re-inventors of R&B, inspiring the works of The Weeknd, Drake and others.

The album cover is a bright orange BMW E30 M3 in a lush green background. This was an interesting choice for the official art. It is simple, just a car that Frank dreams of owning. The car could also be seen as a symbol for his inner desires, parked in an intangible dreamland existing in his mental plane. This album could be a gateway to his mental plane that Frank is inviting us to experience, and this bright orange BMW is the magical pumpkin carriage ride that transports us to that place. He is inviting his listeners to harness their mental energies to create a place like this for themselves. This is a place where we can long for the past, reminisce on love and love lost, and reflect on what we learned about ourselves and our world as we pass through young adulthood.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the tracks.

A Closer Look

There Will Be Tears is an emotional track that touches a very melancholic side of nostalgia, it’s like looking back into your past as older self and giving solace to your younger self as we relive those suppressed memories of painful confusing times with a new found comfort. This song samples There Will Be Tears by Mr. Hudson a simple that is relatable at the core. I like to think that Frank took songs that reminds him of a specific experience, and channel all the emotional energy that he associates with the song. So when he sings, “Well I can, I’m sad/ And there will be tears” you can feels the euphoric release of the sadness and pain he went through dealing with his father’s absence. Frank is welcoming you to release those negative emotions you have built inside too.

Video: Frank Ocean – 'Novacane' | Rap-Up
Taken from the Novacane Music Video by Frank Ocean, 2011.

Novacane is a rich bass heavy song with the beat similar to a heartbeat pounding in your chest as if you’re intoxicated and trying hard to concentrate on your breathing. The music reflects the wonder of meeting this mysterious girl and getting whisked away into a world of debauchery. Although the beat is persistent, reminding me of identical days cycling endlessly, His neutral and almost flat style of singing gives off the cloudiness of being under the influence and expresses the feeling of being numb. His live performance which can be viewed here is where the song shines the most in my opinion. The foggy stage, the slow build-up of the heavy percussions to a soulful and suspenseful vocal ad-lib, and a descent into a musical fog composed from pulsing synthesizers and the same consistent heartbeat, transforms the song into a disorientating trip.

Nature Feels samples the hit classic Electric Feel by MGMT to set the stage to transport you to that time and place of the memory that is imprinted with the famous song, as this song is nostalgic for most us (personally, listening to Electric Feels brings me back to the freedom I felt when taking road trips on the countryside). He uses this atmosphere to recreate a new narrative and new scenery based on what he associates with the song. He begins to tell his story, a narrative filling the empty space left after the the fresh and natural scenery was set in the reader’s minds. The explicit first line- “I been meaning to fuck you in the garden.” tells us exactly where this song is headed. The track is raw, passionate and fun and it inspires giving into pure animalistic pleasure. He helps listeners rediscover sex in an organic light. This song’s progression transports listeners into Frank’s mental plane I like to call Eden, where all his raw sexual desires exists. My favourite thing about this track is the melodious feminine vocals exuding sensations of pure pleasure as if the scene is actively playing through in your head. [sex metaphor]

Love Crimes is a seductive track that samples a diatribe from the movie Eyes Wide Shut by Stanley Kubrick, the director he mentioned in Novacane. Murder She Wrote is a quite nostalgic sound for me as a Jamaican growing up around Reggae. I find it impressive that Frank took the satirical song and made it in a dark song connecting the irrationality of love and the rollercoaster of a forbidden love led by the femme fatal with motifs of murder and death. He tells the story of two young kids getting swept up into love and falling into all of the risks that comes with it with blind passion and love. The highlight of this song is when he sings in the bridge ‘in the gate away car/ You know I love it when the ride is smooth’. The music slows down a full beat, as the music finally catches up to his singing tempo. This is how he sends his listeners to a different wave, as Nicole Kidman’s voice gets louder and louder, allowing us to experience the smooth ride, slow, sensual ride that he sings about, and feels himself.

All of his songs are inspired by a specific theme or story that Frank wants his listeners to experience. He wants us to experience numbness from novacane, hope from we all try and natural sexual desire from nature feels. As we see, he uses his music to stimulate similar experiences and life memories so we can all be connected to this central abstract ideas unique to humans. Ocean considers himself a storyteller, and he chose music as a medium to tell his stories because it was striking enough to encapsulate the listeners and create an appropriate atmosphere for the story.

“I feel more like a visual artist…”

Frank Ocean elaborating his process of making Nostalgia Ultra, BBC Sound of 2012.

Frank explains that when he makes a song -the process he calls storytelling- he will pull from his own wisdom and experiences and emotions and each comes with an image unique to each listener that is relayed through his music, whether it is him using his lyrics to paint the imagery or using the music to create the scenery.

He shows us that all these emotions we have lingering from the past like regret, grief, longing, love, and that all of it is beautiful and worth reminiscing on and processing it before moving on.

Employ your mental energies and allow yourself to be transported to Frank Ocean’s Nostalgia Ultra, it’s definitely worth a listen.

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