Courtesy of the autotune-inflected sound that dominates the airwaves, the line between singing and rapping is practically indistinguishable. Freed from vocal limitations, hip-hop’s increased focus on tuneful terrain has opened up a new world of possibilities and, as dual-wielding both mediums went from noteworthy to culturally prescribed, this new climate wouldn’t only embolden a fleet of ambitious rappers, but a once-in-a-generation vocal talent.
Possessing one of music’s most awe-inspiring ranges, Frank Ocean is synonymous with poignant, R&B-infused output. But as evidenced by the fanfare that surrounded his stripped-back singles “Dear April” and “Cayendo,” his stunning tones would still flourish within the most primitive constraints. Returning to the balladry that provided some of Nostalgia Ultra and Channel Orange’s most transcendent moments, these offerings feel anomalous among his recent material.
Since the launch of PrEP+ in October, Ocean has been drip-feeding new music to his devotees. Beginning with “DHL” and the immersive “In My Room,” these compositions eschewed his enchanting vocals in favor of meandering flows. Reinforced by “Little Demon” with Skepta, every preview suggested that Ocean was plotting a stylistic overhaul.
Said to be “toying with format” during a September 2019 profile with W, Ocean’s eagerness to side-line his singing voice is a high-risk strategy that major labels would normally deter. Although it may alienate some more soulfully-inclined fans, consolidating his efforts into rapping has its basis in both Ocean’s back catalog and his overall outlook on artistry.
For all that Ocean’s scene-stealing work on JAY-Z and Kanye’s Watch the Throne spotlighted his incredible voice, another collaborative offering brought his rapping acumen to the public eye. Amid standout verses from Tyler, the Creator and the abrupt return of Earl Sweatshirt, a breezy turn from Ocean on The OF Tape Vol 2’s posse cut “Oldie” became the focal point.
Characterized by a combination of subtle braggadocio (“Rent a supercar for a day / Drive around with your friend / Smoke a gram of that haze”) and wry personal revelations (“I’m high and I’m bi / wait I mean I’m straight”), its trade-off between candidness and playful bravado provides the perfect baseline to interpret Ocean’s two-pronged approach to rapping. Awash in lateral, André 3000-inspired flows, Ocean doesn’t make the transition needlessly. Instead, it’s used to either foster intimacy between himself and the audience or to reassert that, when he wants to, Ocean can inhabit this adjoining musical realm and outshine almost anyone.
The OF Era
Since his career began, Ocean has kept his personal life closely guarded. Dealing in hazy recollections and love letters told in the rear-view, one of Ocean’s greatest strengths as an artist is his ability to distort his own experiences in order to make them malleable and applicable to the listener’s life.
Unwilling to conventionally embrace fame, Ocean contends that his output is his means of communing with the public. “Just take what I give you. You ain’t got to pry beyond that,” he told GQ in 2012 “I don’t know if it’s a shield or whatever, but I want to deflect as much as I can onto my work.”
As such, when Ocean decides to unveil untampered fragments of his life, they tend to arrive within meditative rap verses. Since he recounted meeting Tyler while “five minutes from suicide” on Goblin’s “Window,” many of Ocean’s verses are earnest in a way that breeds timelessness, while the sparsity of them allows for an in-built sense of occasion.
Described as a “wild” verse by OF brother, Ocean would solidify this approach as he broached his fabled parking lot brawl with Chris Brown on Earl Sweatshirt’s “Sunday,” spitting:
“Forgot you don’t like it rough / I mean, he called me a faggot / I was just calling his bluff / I mean how anal am I gon’ be when I’m aiming my gun / And why’s his mug all bloody / That was a three-on-one.”
Conjured up like a page from a scrapbook, these bars allow the mystique to subside in order to provide a dispatch from a life lived away from invasive recording booths. Yet as we’d only come to realize with hindsight, his references to harboring “Backpack rapper skills / Veteran nigga deal” on the 2012 Pharrell-produced loosie “Blue Whale” prefaced that this wasn’t limited to high-profile gossip.
“My head fatiguing off the opus” – “UNITY”
In 2018, A$AP Rocky’s “Purity” saw Ocean discuss reneging on that same “veteran” deal with Def Jam as he “fired the label, like fuck brands.” An “improvised” verse led by intuition rather than orchestration, his references to being “reserved in the Mercer [hotel] for two years” recall the tendency to allow fans a glance behind the curtain that he’d clung to during the most celebrated but personally taxing era of his career.
Thoughtfully woven into his contractual offramp of Endless and his classic offering Blonde, Ocean opted to erode the awe that his vocals inspired to convey his message more directly and create emphatic tonal shifts. Landing closer to unearthed diary entries than the luscious symbolism and societal themes which regularly underscore his lyricism, 2016’s forays into rap were weighted with heartrending honesty.
Covering everything from falling “asleep in the foreign” after the MSG Life of Pablo launch on “Sideways” to forlorn gallery trips and lessons learnt on “UNITY,” Ocean’s lyrical candor across Endless set the tone for further self-excavation to come.
Declaring to The New York Times that its creative process was “frenetic,” the structural freedom of rap enabled Blonde to become the space where the maelstrom of emotions and memories that flooded his mind became more approachable. Amid poignant tales of dewy-eyed days in Texas on the enthralling “Nights,” this is never clearer than when the woes of the last few years subside and he chases down clarity on “Siegfried”:
“Less morose and more present / Dwell on my gifts for a second / A moment / One solar flare / We’re consumed / So why not spend this flammable paper on the film that’s my life?”
Whether embroiled in hardship or reflecting on formative experiences, verses such as this and the wistful “Futura Free” are Ocean’s means of bearing himself to the audience while sticking to the artful terms that he’d outlined to GQ in 2012.
“I’m torchin’ the road in these Gucci flames” – “RAF”
Considering that he doesn’t “enjoy things I couldn’t envision myself being the best at,” Ocean is conscious about his aptitude for rapping. And for someone that spends prolonged periods solitarily hunched over a laptop, it seems to be a form of creative escapism as well as a competitive pursuit for him to engage in.
Crafted on a whim, Ocean took to his legendary Tumblr in 2013 to pen an unofficial verse for Migos’ breakout hit “Versace.” Although unrecorded, Ocean’s wry take on consumerism and boastful nods to “selling out cities, I don’t do no promo” suggested that the 26-year-old Ocean couldn’t simply hang with the new school, but handily overshadow them.
First unveiled on a May 2017 edition of Blonded Radio, Ocean fulfilled this prophecy on A$AP Mob’s “RAF.” After finding the track’s concept “funny,” its recording coincided with a period of “practicing structuring verses” and “trying to get better at doing it.” In a testament to Frank’s adaptability, Rocky’s initial critique that he was “rappin’ like it’s 2003” didn’t deter him. Opting to “riff” on the “bouncy, today thing,” Ocean seamlessly sunk into that flow while retaining his lyrical panache, deftly taking the spotlight from Rocky, Lil Uzi Vert, Playboi Carti, and Migos’ own Quavo in the process.
“Don’t you know the vibe just as fly as the rhyme?” – “Oldie”
Seeking to express himself to the fullest, Frank Ocean doesn’t rap to compensate for shortcomings. Instead, he’s bolstered his skillset to give his repertoire a robustness that outweighs most, if not all, of his contemporaries while fashioning a pipeline to deliver his most personal content. Despite his talents within this arena, if a fully-fledged Frank Ocean rap album emerges, there would doubtlessly be fans that would feel robbed of his staggering voice. But as he relayed to John Mayer at Saturday Night Live, greatness isn’t found on the path of least resistance.
“I just feel if I’m going to be alive, I want to be challenged to be as immortal as possible… That isn’t an easy way, but it’s a rewarding way.”