Trying to understand Frank Ocean is like being in one of those revolving Madhouse rides: you think you – literally – know what’s up but then it turns out you’ve been played and that your life is a scam like the pop-up girl who will help you get down with single ladies in your area (but is really barking up the wrong tree, sweetie). So when Frank speaks and allows light to be shed on his persona, you grab your gold-plated Colette BIC pen and you take note.
In a new and rare interview with the New York Times, the ever elusive and brilliant artist casually dropped some astute gems but also allowed for a fuller take on ‘Blonde’, his long-awaited 2016 album. You should definitely read the whole thing, but allow me to parse his words for you and distill a few of the life lessons I’m lapping up from the Ocean.
On leaving when you notice people are playing you:
Frank doesn’t think of that as running away. “If your house is on fire, you need to get out of the house”. Well damn.
Carry the hard drives containing your work in a backpack with you at all times. That way, if your plane goes down, people don’t put out some ‘weird posthumous release’.
On writer’s block:
Try talking to old friends to unlock your creativity. After not being able to write for almost a year, Frank reconnected with a New Orleans friend who was going through tough times. That experience made him feel ‘like he should talk about the way he grew up more’. Which brought us the line from ‘Godspeed’ that kills me every time: ‘You look down on where you came from, sometimes, but you’ll have this place to call home, always.’
Pause before you put it out there. When Ocean felt angry, he wanted to be angry on a song too. But then he remembered that a record lives on way beyond you being upset. He always asked himself whether that particular feeling of anger would really last. Now I’m all for putting your rage out there full-throttle (still bopping to Lemonade seven months in), but this line of thinking really explains the general difference between ‘Blonde’ and ‘Channel Orange’ to me.
On organising your workspace:
Declutter your house. Frank’s London flat had no furniture but the essentials so he could walk around freely and he removed all excess stuff from Abbey Road studios. The only thing he added was flower arrangements, which obviously I agree with. I would have the amazing Mark Colle on retainer in a heartbeat.
On what success really is:
Take your time and put your work out there when you feel it’s good to go and you’ll already be successful. Granted, that’s easier when you have no bills to worry about, but work with me here. Frank took his sweet time making this record because he had to make sure his business dealings were on point and because he was chasing an intangible sound for his music. There are 50 versions of ‘White Ferrari’, for instance. He wanted to feel like he had won before it was even out. He calls soaring first-week sales and commercial success a ‘lagniappe’, a nice extra, comparable to the free krupuk you get with your sushi. Having the third highest sales of the year, behind Drake and Beyoncé, is PRAWN CRACKERS to him, y’all. Not caring for sales however does not mean he doesn’t keep perfect tabs on them. Sales tell him how to strategise and ‘where to plan shows’. Gather thy coins, he might finally be coming over here!
On knowing when not to compete:
Sometimes winning means not entering the race at all. Frank recently famously refused to send in ‘Blonde’ for Grammy consideration. He now explains that he doesn’t feel like the Grammys represent very well for ‘the people who come from where I come from, and hold down what I hold down’. Since Frank was born, only a few black artists have won album of the year and they were all icons like Ray Charles or Herbie Hancock. He said he’d rather this be his ‘Colin Kaepernick moment’ than to just sit there in the audience. What’s so important about that is knowing when to take yourself out of situations that are simply not made for you to flourish in. There’s a lot to be said for fighting back, and you should, but there’s endless grief in that too. Choices.
So go forth, make wise and thoughtful decisions, make ’em wait till it’s really good and surround yourself with flowers. If anyone complains that they’re allergic to roses and they never see you anymore, it’s time to put them on mute because ‘Blonde wasn’t made in a day’!
All images unless specified: Boys Don’t Cry magazine