Frank Ocean Makes Moves Like Nobody Else

The singer-songwriter makes moves like nobody else.

Photograph by Tim Walker.

All along, Frank Ocean has been hiding in plain sight. Not on the sites populating your feed, perhaps, because he releases songs and tours sparingly, rewrites music industry conventions with stealth precision, and flouts celebrity social media paradigms at will. But for all the talk of how enigmatic he is, the 31-year-old singer-songwriter has shared more about what moves, drives, and undoes him than pretty much any of his peers. Just listen to “Self Control.” Or “Ivy.” Or other songs on his autobiographical Blonde, the last album he released, in August 2016, which catapulted him to icon status and confirmed his reign as one of the most influential artists of the decade, among the first to blend R&B, soul, rap, rock, and electronic music. In 2012, the year he released his major label debut album, Channel Orange, and was nominated for six Grammys, he revealed in a Tumblr letter that his first love had been a man, an unusually open admission for a black male artist at the time.

He is, in any case, hardly a recluse: On this steamy late-July evening in New York, he pulls up to the SoHo hotel lobby where we are meeting on his bright green racing bike, helmet in hand. On his wrist is a Richard Mille Bonbon watch with a green band, its face decorated with neon sliced fruit and mini candies. He had ridden here, he tells me, after first stopping off for a vegan Cubano on the Lower East Side. For several years Ocean moved from city to city, renting houses or staying in hotels, but now he owns a place in New York. He rarely gives interviews or makes public statements, and the silent lapses that regularly follow his musical releases (he took four years between Channel Orange and Blonde) ignite fervent, constant speculation from his fans.

Ocean wears a Prada jacket.

Photograph by Tim Walker. Hair by Nat Bury for Mo Better Cutz; Grooming by Celia Burton at JAQ Management; Manicure by Loui-Marie Ebanks at JAQ Management. Produced by Jeff Delich at Padbury Production; Production Manager: Lauren Sakioka at Padbury Production; Photography Assistants: Sarah Lloyd, Tony Ivanov; Lighting Director: David Gilbey; Retouching: Graeme Bulcraig at Touch Digital; Fashion Assistants: Allia Alliata di Montereale, Philip smith, Sandra Blazinskaite, Harry Bradbury; Production Assistants: Charlotte Norman, Harry Hose; Tailor: Alina Gencaite.

He was born Christopher Edwin Breaux and grew up in New Orleans, where he was raised by his mother. (His father left the family when Frank was 6.) His uncles, aunts, and cousins lived nearby; his maternal grandfather, a former addict, was a mentor at AA and NA, and he sometimes accompanied his grandfather to meetings. Ocean remembers that he wrote instead of talking a lot of the time. “It was more comfortable,” he says. To book studio time, he worked various odd jobs before heading to Los Angeles, where he began writing songs for Justin Bieber, John Legend, and Brandy. In 2009, he signed to Def Jam, but the label largely ignored him until his self-released debut mixtape, Nostalgia, Ultra (2011), raised a ruckus online. By then, he had met Tyler, the Creator and found a kindred spirit in the Odd Future collective and its DIY sensibility. On his way to surprise-releasing the visual streaming album Endless for Def Jam, in 2016, and the experimental Blonde, he hatched a plan to buy himself out of his contract and gain back ownership of his master recordings.

His own T-shirt; Louis Vuitton Men’s shorts skirt; vintage belt; his own jewelry (throughout).

Photograph by Tim Walker.

In the intervening three years, Ocean released a number of singles—“Chanel,” “Biking,” “Provider,” and a wrenching cover of the ’60s ballad “Moon River”—and showed up at Paris Fashion Week, the Met Gala, and Marc Jacobs’s wedding. Still, until we sat down, he had offered no glimpse of his next album or any other projects. As to whether he had any release dates in mind, he simply answered, “No.” One thing he made certain: He’s on Frank Ocean time, and so are we.

What are you looking at and thinking about these days?

I’ve been interested in club, and the many different iterations of nightlife for music and songs. And so the things I look at now have a lot to do with those scenes: Detroit, Chicago, techno, house, French electronic…

Is there a specific subculture or scene that has long influenced you?

I grew up in New Orleans, so the closest to the nightlife scene for me was New Orleans bounce, and that was a lot of trends. But it’s so much a part of my childhood and my youth that I don’t really go back to it so much as a touch point. I’m really looking forward. It’s kind of a mix for me.

Prada jacket and shorts; his own bracelet.

Photograph by Tim Walker.

Prada jacket, shirt, neckerchief, and necklace.

Photograph by Tim Walker.

What were you like as a kid in middle school, growing up in New Orleans?

I was outside, always. I was pretty precocious. In New Orleans you live really close to your family. My uncle lived down the street, my cousins, and my older cousin, my auntie lived a few blocks way. And we didn’t, you know, have a ton of money. So let’s say one month the water’s off or one month the power’s off down the street. My cousins would be at the house with me for that time. And my friends would be there a lot. It was just the hangout in the neighborhood. I liked that.

Were you bored at school?

I didn’t have a deep affection for authority. I was expelled and suspended it felt like every five minutes, every school year until I became obsessed with figuring out how to make a career in music. And that interest fostered a different mentality. I think it was also around the transition to becoming a teenager, and I got really calm. My mom comments on that fairly often. I feel like I still had a lot of inner chaos, but I didn’t express it the same way. So that probably was noticeable.

What gave you the desire to pursue music as a career?

It was a driver to get out of the neighborhood. I remember feeling no attachment to music necessarily, more an attachment to what music could bring if I succeeded, you know, financially. And that meant freedom from my situation at the time, and maybe what I was projecting onto my own future.

You now have this major platform as an artist and your own cultural power. For the 2018 midterm elections, you made T-shirts to reward people in swing districts who could prove they’d voted. How do you personally incentivize people to vote or to care?

The stakes are high. I would replace the word “responsibility” with “opportunity” when it comes to voting, because you have the right to do nothing, but you have an opportunity to do so much more. It’s simple to go vote; it’s complicated to galvanize votes. I’d like to have as many schemes as possible. There’s truth to this idea that every generation has something really big to be afraid of—at least one thing that affects their survival or their quality of life. I don’t think that we’ve reached a point where I no longer have a choice but to be pessimistic. I still think I have a choice to be optimistic about the possibilities.

Are there any new projects that you’re working on?

My answer to that is that I’m always working on music and other things. Right now I’m working on doing four underwater laps in the pool.

At the gym?

At my house.

Your house in New York?

Yeah, my place here.

Prada jacket and shorts.

Photograph by Tim Walker.

You have a pool?

Yeah, I have a pool. Doing four laps underwater is hard. You feel like you’re going to die. I do something every day just to rebel against this nonverbal part of my personality that would have me be unproductive. So whether it’s taking a cold shower or a new physical challenge, it’s something to activate the other part of myself that wants to be productive and get things done. Every single day it gets me ready for everything that comes after I leave my house.

What are some of the themes or ideas you’re exploring in your new music?

I believed for a very long time that there was strength in vulnerability, and I really don’t believe that anymore. “Strength” and “vulnerability” sound opposite as words. And so to combine them sounds wise, but I don’t know if it is wise. It’s just this realization that hit me: “Oh, right, it’s a choice whether you will be truthful or a liar.” If I start to tell a story and then I decide not to tell the story anymore, I can stop. It’s my story. The expectation for artists to be vulnerable and truthful is a lot, you know?—when it’s no longer a choice. Like, 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.

So you mean a fantasy, not a lie.

They’re the same thing.

A fantasy could be hopeful.

Some people have dark fantasies. [Laughs]

In what is now music industry lore, in 2016 you released the Endless visual album to fulfill your contract with your label, Def Jam, and put out Blonde independently the following day. You were working on two projects simultaneously but couldn’t talk about it.

When I worked on my first project, Nostalgia, Ultra, I hardly told anyone. Even people I was working with at the time didn’t know about it. There’s something that happens when you say what you’re doing before it’s done, and most of it is not positive. You’re accountable for that version that you talk about, when it very well may undergo change. It’s usually better for me to make what I make, put it out or don’t, and then talk about it freely. And so I’ve done that from the beginning. I’ve never had media training, as you could probably tell.

This is just an aside, maybe, but every day I wake up shocked that I do what I do for a living, and at the strangeness of being a figure that is asked questions, and that people want to talk about my thoughts or my anything. It’s rarely lost on me that it’s bizarro, you know?

What was it like to work in two different orbits on Endless and Blonde at the same time?

As much as reflection is a part of a lot of my work, in my day-to-day thinking about what to do next, I don’t really reference my past so much. When I do look back, I feel like from Channel Orange to Blonde was a big jump for me in terms of not just the way things sounded but the way things looked and were glued together. I’m not speaking only to the creative part of it, but to executing a strategy that took a lot of balls, and also—what’s the word I’m looking for?—like, not “spycraft” exactly. When it went according to plan, it felt like a huge relief. I could move however I wanted in the business and also have all my things with me. And that was the complexity in that strategy—how not to just get away from a record label but to get away from a record label at the same time as you’re getting everything you’ve made that they own.

Prada jacket and shorts.

Photograph by Tim Walker.

Why did you decide to release Endless and Blonde one day after the other? It’s such a James Bond move.

For effect. Yeah.

Are you still distrustful of storing any creative work online?

I’m working with a string arranger right now in Rio, and every time we go back and forth, because I don’t put things on the Internet, I have to send a drive with someone to Rio, or I have to go myself.

Is your next music project also independently produced, or is it with a label?

I’ve been independent since 2016. So I plan on keeping it that way for a while. I’ve got amazing credit, so if I need a loan, I’ll go to a bank. [Laughs]

Are you moving in any new directions?

Toying with format is interesting right now. Because technology for a long time has dictated what the format is, and as punk as we want to be, we’re all kind of existing as recording artists inside of a technology, whether it’s the software we record and edit our music on, or whether it’s the medium that we press our music to distribute it. But the medium—the CD, vinyl set, or whatever—has moved to an intangible, and there’s no 45-minute limit, 60-minute limit, or 120-minute limit. It’s just so elastic. And you don’t have a lot of people doing it that way, because in a lot of the contracts of today with the labels, there’s an expectation to turn in a set amount of albums. That’s really an arbitrary limitation. That’s not state-of-the-art. I hear rappers talk about their business savvy and their ­independence in songs. And I think the more of that, the better. The idea of being able to have a decent life living off just a thousand fans who are invested in you and will purchase what you make is only possible with ownership of the business.

Any other kinds of projects you’re working on besides music?

I think for a while I’d like to get away from work that’s solitary by nature. I’ve never been in a band or had a songwriting partner or been with a group, so it’s always been a lot of time on my own writing and doing the work. I like the parts of the process where I work with session musicians or with other record producers or featured artists and guest vocalists. I’ve been trying to make time to do more of that sort of thing, and be in spaces where I’m not the expert.

How have you and A$AP Rocky influenced each other creatively?

I remember doing the “Raf” verses [on A$AP Rocky’s 2017 song “Raf”], and at the time I was practicing rap, practicing structuring verses, practicing flow, trying to get better at doing it. I was writing a lot of verses. Rocky [and the A$AP Mob] were making Cozy Tapes, the second one, and Rocky told me he had this song called “Raf,” and I thought that was funny. I was living in a hotel then, and I had a studio setup somewhere else on the property. So I jump in the studio and I’m putting the verse down, just quick, you know, sorted it out, went by Rocky’s house and played him the song. I could tell he was very animated about it, and then he said, “Man, you rappin’ like it’s 2003.” And I was just like, “Oh, shit!” I understood why he was saying it, because the flow was more complicated. I thought, All right, we want the bouncy today thing. Let me riff on that idea. And so I wrote that verse, and I sent it to him. And I told him, “Tell me, what year are we now?”

Prada jacket, shorts, and belt; his own T-shirt.

Photograph by Tim Walker.

You sampled the ballroom culture legend Crystal LaBeija on a track on Endless. What’s interesting to you about drag ballroom culture and those particular personalities?

Well, it kind of reminds me of home. The music is related. It’s very alive, soulful, unapologetic. There’s a duality to the movement. It’s so physical—it’s tough to do some of those moves—but it also has a theatrical, feminine quality that’s beautiful to see in motion. Crystal LaBeija is about her voice and her reads and her look and just being dead serious and fully engaged with who she was and not backing down. You know, House of LaBeija came to my 30th birthday party in L.A. and shut it down. I did runway.

Since we’re on the subject and you’re on the cover of W’s Originals Issue, I have to ask: Who is an Original to you?

The answer to that is, everyone was original. It’s important to say “was.”

What are you doing in the next few weeks?

I’ll be shooting a photo series project that I’m doing in collaboration with another visual artist. I can’t say who it is yet, but he’s supertalented, and I’m playing a character in this sequence about a particular music industry practice that’s been going on for a long time. It’s a narrative in photos, and I want the edit to be really tight. But I think it’ll be cool. I’m excited about it.

Are you taking a vacation?

I wish. I wish. I was talking to a friend yesterday about Fire Island because I’ve never been. I didn’t realize some of the details on it, like how there are no cars and it’s all walkways, and they paint the side of the walkways in white so you can see at night because there are no lights. And then there’s the Glass House in Connecticut [by Philip Johnson] that I want to go see.

You mentioned the Glass House, and you own that killer Pierre Paulin sofa that you posted on Instagram. Do you follow design?

Yeah. I see a lot of design. Speaking of voguing, I went to Marc Jacobs’s wedding reception a few weeks ago at the Seagram Building, which Mies van der Rohe designed. The bar’s on the higher level and the Pool is on the lower level. At a certain point in the night, everybody was moving closer to the DJ and nobody was down by the Pool, and my friends and I were doing, like, death drops because it was carpeted, so I could practice, which was amazing.

You’re known for your unique style. Do you have any fashion obsessions at the moment?

I realized I haven’t made a lot of time to shop or buy stuff for myself, and I’d been wearing a similar thing every day for a while. I was feeling how Keanu Reeves looked in The Devil’s Advocate. He would wear a sports coat and tie with a button-collar Oxford sort of deal—the best hair, and the light-wash denims and the belt that matched the shoes. Just very nice.

His own T-shirt.

Photograph by Tim Walker. Hair by Nat Bury for Mo Better Cutz; Grooming by Celia Burton at JAQ Management; Manicure by Loui-Marie Ebanks at JAQ Management. Produced by Jeff Delich at Padbury Production; Production Manager: Lauren Sakioka at Padbury Production; Photography Assistants: Sarah Lloyd, Tony Ivanov; Lighting Director: David Gilbey; Retouching: Graeme Bulcraig at Touch Digital; Fashion Assistants: Allia Alliata di Montereale, Philip smith, Sandra Blazinskaite, Harry Bradbury; Production Assistants: Charlotte Norman, Harry Hose; Tailor: Alina Gencaite.

So you figure out a uniform?

I start with the shape and then I just slot in the pieces, so I get that shape and go about my day. Now it’s really hot, so I’m wearing the shoes I wore on tour, these mismatched Vans that I’ve had for too long. I’m all off program by now.

I feel a little like Joan Rivers on the red carpet asking you who you’re wearing.

Rest in peace. My legend.

She was an Original.

Yeah! She was sick! I mean, unapologetic. I think that “Fuck who sees me” energy, “This is what I am giving. Period” is what I relate to in ballroom culture—it’s this extroversion manifest.

The fearlessness.

Yeah. With the fear, through fear, and despite fear, whatever, this is what’s going on. This is what it is. And I love that.