A Brief History of Frank Ocean, Master Rapper
Nostalgia fills the drums as they kick listeners back to a time where emcees would surround like a campfire, ready to cypher, awaiting their turn to sink their teeth into the loop. When beats carry the same dirt found only in New York subways, Brooklyn street corners, or Harlem house parties in the '90s, it’s assumed that rappers will be getting down and dirty. Odd Future was never seen as offsprings of the old school, they were more hipster than hardcore, but on the song “Oldie,” from their 2012 project The OF Tape Vol. 2, the misfit collective took it back, as the title suggests.
Every male member from Tyler to Taco brought lyrics to the posse cut, the beat had mere seconds to breath between rappers before the barrage of bars continued. Earl had just come home—the prodigy was given the most room to let his pen bleed—but when the song came to a close, the one who had left the most lasting impression was the group’s promising songbird.
The rapper who stood out the most on "Oldie" was Frank Ocean.
From driving supercars with friends to reminiscing about slaving over the hot grill at Fatburger, Frank's verse is filled with memorable moments and quotable lyrics. He starts with a Galaga reference that takes you back to losing endless quarters at the arcade, finishing with a refrain addictive enough to become a hook, and even secretly slides in a nod to his sexuality.
It was a small space, but he paints a Picasso on a canvas tiny enough to fit in a wallet. There’s a wizardry to his words, an enchanting quality to his rhymes. Lyrics were delivered with ease and grace, and for someone who gained mass attention for singing, the way he rapped was more backpacker than R&B sensation.
The “Oldie” verse wasn’t the first time he delivered a rap for OF: on Tyler’s debut studio album Goblin, the prominent singer arrived on the eight-minute “Windows” with a similar style—detailed storytelling, poetic lyricism, and an effortless delivery more akin to overhearing an intimate conversation. In a literary sense, Frank's verses are like reading prose the shade of purple; lyricism flowered with colorful content.
R&B singers stepping into the rap domain isn’t something new—Chris Brown, Trey Songz and even Ne-Yo have entered the arena to varying degrees of success. It's even more current now in this era where the two genres have almost merged, but it’s still obvious when a singer steps outside their natural, artistic habitat. With Frank, his style of rap seems to be cut from a similar cloth as his singing—the same approach through a different medium.
Appearing on Earl’s “Sunday” from his album Doris once again proved that his prowess for words can easily be shifted from falsetto to off-beat, melodic rap flows. He keeps it slow, a personal narrative, where each bar is stitched to the next like a lyrical quilt. Again, in the presence of Odd Future’s most heralded lyricist, Frank stands alongside Sweatshirt rather than being eclipsed by him.
An Ocean verse that didn’t receive much attention can be found on “Astro,” a track off the sophomore MellowHype album Numbers. His melodic approach shows his ability to blur the lines between rapping and singing, a style that would further be explored on his future albums. What truly stands out on “Astro” is the hook, where he raps about wearing a yellow tux to the GRAMMYs, a man of his word. What’s more rapper than living by your rhymes?
Right before Frank’s extended hiatus, but after the release of Channel Orange, Frank released “Blue Whale,” a raw, unmixed, tropical rap record. The production is sultry, like putting your ear to a seashell. You feel as if you’re walking along the beach with Frank. The imagery he describes creates the surroundings, and if you close your eyes the feeling of sand can almost be felt between your toes.
His flow has been compared to Mos Def, the skills cut from a backpacker's vein. I also can hear André 3000 during his post-OutKast remix era, when he filled songs full of stories—particularly his verse on the remix of Lloyd's "You." Frank also reminds me of Pharrell: less eager, more elegant, but their ways of creating portraits in their rhymes are similar.
The same way DJ Drama did In My Mind: Prequel with Skateboard P, I would rejoice if Mr. Thanksgiving gave Frank his very own Gangsta Grillz to get these rhymes off. In 2013, on his Tumblr page, Frank showed lyrics for a remix to the Migo's "Versace," but sadly never released the audio. It sounds like he was in the mixtape mindset, and it would've been a great precursor to the album.
“Blue Whale” is what made me believe that Frank had a rap album in him, and I secretly hoped that his resurgence would showcase Frank the lyricist more than just Frank the songwriter. I sort of got my wish with Endless, the visual album that has a few rare moments where the songbird breaks away from what’s expected of him. Both “Mine” and “U-N-I-T-Y" are rap Frank, a stream-of-consciousness that channels a unique, slower flow. The words are perfectly enunciated—not a mumble in his style.
The way Frank raps feels like the kind of flow Drake would find interesting enough to borrow, but so unlike what’s happening in rap right now. I love the short but infectious “Comme des Garçons,” a quick verse delivered with melodic fervor. There’s a bounce in the beat and energy in his tone.
The best moments on Endless tend to be the shortest. Frank’s flow on “Sideways” is smoother than snowboarding down a hill of vanilla soft serve, but it only lasts the length of a television commercial. Out of all the songs that appear on Endless, I believe this could’ve been a breakout single. “Slide On Me” is another blend of rapping sprinkled with melody—it’s butter slick, a song that fits perfectly in this climate of Young Thug and Post Malone.
Endless seems to be a project made out of passion, maybe evidence for an abundance of songs where Frank takes more of a rap approach. There was room to experiment, to utilize elements of his artistry that fans aren’t as acquainted with. Blonde, the album seen as his true sophomore release, focuses more on his talents as a vocalist, but he still finds room to tap into his inner rapper. On the opening track, “Nikes,” just like his pitched-up vocals, there are seamless switches between high notes and zigzag rapping. It’s pretty clear he doesn’t see them as exclusively different, but two forms of expression that he can utilize at any moment.
A perfect example is “Nights,” a song where Frank is unpredictable; there’s no telling how the next note will be sung or the next bar spit. One of the best flows of 2016 can be heard after the beat switch—the way he sits in the pocket is immaculate. There’s a rhythm to the way he rides the beat, it’s like watching a waterfall flow into the ocean.
“Futura Free,” the final song on Blonde, is another rap with his vocals pitched up, a departure from his natural voice. It took me a while to accept the voice, but the rapping grabs your attention. The long–winded verse seems freestyled, loose—a noticeable difference compared to the refined perfection that he tends to execute. The honesty in his rhymes is what I always return to, Blonde is an album that embraces being transparent, and “Futura Free” is extremely transparent.
The way he writes is why I truly enjoy Frank Ocean. He uses words to illustrate, and no matter if he’s talking about crack rocks or self-control the songs are illuminated by his use of language. Rapping, singing, poetry—it’s all words.
There’s no question he can write, but the way words are delivered can make or break a rap artist. Quentin Miller has an excellent flow and a great delivery, but he lacks the charisma that would make his style star worthy. Drake had the charisma he lacks, he brought the missing piece to the table and created an acclaimed project like If You’re Reading This.
With Frank, he has mastered a style that bridges his singing and rapping in an era where melody is king. Do not sleep on rapping Frank. André 3000 may have the best verse on his last album, but that doesn’t change the fact he’s an extremely talented wordsmith in his own right.
If he ever decided to commit to and make an entire project that’s driven by the mastery of his craft, putting his backpack rapper skills to the forefront, the hottest emcees list will have to make room for the phoenix from New Orleans.
By Yoh, aka Yoh The Prophet aka @Yoh31.