Frank Ocean. His name suddenly sat on the tip of my tongue as if the answer to some absurd trivia inquiry. I wasn’t watching Jeopardy, but somewhere in the depths of my psyche the question was posed: Who does this sound like?
A common internal investigation unfolds when a new artist is introduced to eardrums. First, you absorb, and then you assess, scanning everything from the first note down to the final lyric. Reaching a familiar reference point is no different than seeing an unknown face and noticing the features of someone famous, an overwhelming nostalgia instead of the shock of an utterly original appearance.
By the time I arrived at “Moksha,” the third track off his newly-released debut, Peak, I couldn’t shake the feeling—21-year-old newcomer Choker is a spawn of the elusive R&B phoenix.
Hilariously, an artist named Choker isn’t a brolic Bronx MC with an affinity for strangulation and WWE, but a bedroom artist from Michigan who self-produced an album that is a fusion of hip-hop, R&B and psychedelic rock. Glimmers of Frank can be heard in his singing tone and cadence, with an added sprinkle of similarities in their meditative, rambling raps and sudden melodic switches. "Moksha" glitters and glistens with a poet's attention to detail. I couldn’t help but conclude that Frank was a natural source of inspiration. Even with their vocal similarities being a Ghostface/Action Bronson coincidence, their kindred artistic spirits don't stop there.
“Diorama” is filled with lyrics like “I see in Portra 400,” “Light bills and garments fit for a czar” and “Astral projecting just so I could fuck on the daughter of death.” These lines sound like they could come from the man who once desired a Persian rug where the center resembled Galaga. It’s the way the two artists weave imagery of the most unlikely images that is most attention-grabbing, and to Choker's credit, his penmanship is fascinating enough. He has an array of pop culture references and unforgettable one-liners that are tattooed to memory banks. The words feel like they flow out of him naturally.
While the influence can be traced to Frank, that doesn’t discredit the fact he sounds like an artist searching for his original voice and not simply trying to mimic someone famous.
I know a lot of artists hate comparisons, but I think the easiest comparison with you is Frank Ocean. Are you a fan of his?
I think any kid putting music on the internet in this current climate would be lying if they said Odd Future wasn't an influence in some way, shape, or form. The Frank comparison makes sense to me in terms of vocal approach at times, but I can't really help how my voice sounds. Of course I'm inspired by him though; he's one of the few widely known and established artists that constantly charges towards the unexplored. I'm cool with being compared to someone I respect, the trouble starts when you get lumped in with folks that misrepresent your skill set. - "Meet Choker, a Self-Produced Artist With an Incredible Debut Album Out Now"
What I like most about Peak is the fact Choker isn’t fully developed. The project is imperfect, unpolished, overproduced and, at times, artistically overwhelming. Flaws in music are like the thorns on a rose, being pierced is the price that comes with appreciating its beauty. Choker’s debut is a beautiful mess, a maelstrom of original ideas and concepts executed with a carefree precision.
He doesn’t care if “Sunflower” is essentially three songs blissfully overlaying one another or that “Tape: Side A” feels like an incomplete blueprint to a great song that gives up before growing up, or how the sobering stream-of-consciousness that makes “Lush” such a stunning track is almost ruined (or maybe improved) by the random yell and transitions that disrupt the ending. It’s like ending an intimate moment with impromptu firecrackers just because you have leftovers from the Fourth of July.
The entirety of Peak is filled with artistic decisions that tow from daring idiosyncrasies in the name of rebellion against contemporary creation to too many darlings left alive instead of slaughtered. Yet, the very faults that should burden the listening experience are eccentrically charming—this is raw bedroom artistry that doesn’t attempt to hide shortcomings with glitter. There’s a purity to Choker's creative impulses as if he attempted to download every artistic idea into a 37-minute musical.
Music can often feel too perfect, too polished; an almost boring template that artists fear to step outside. It’s another parallel that I draw between Choker and Frank: Peak reminds me of how Nostalgia, Ultra suddenly arrived with a feeling as if it was trying to rewrite what was expected of R&B. “Novacane” felt like a story that was lived but left untold; he brought a break from normality that I didn’t know was needed.
Alternative artwork and a movie script are included when you download Peak, a surprise for kids who still like to keep files on their computer and not just stream them from their mobile device. The alternative art is a Kodak Portra 400 photo of a young man in blue jeans, a white shirt, and a green sweatshirt purposely covering his face. The picture reminds me of photos from Frank’s Tumblr that were uploaded in March 2014, Frank’s face wrapped in some kind of quilt. I won’t say it’s an intentional replication, but the contrast of the two images is amusing.
The script is likely a closer homage to Childish Gambino than Frank Ocean, but it’s worth noting that Frank included a screenplay in the Boys Don’t Cry magazine. Frank and Gambino aren’t the first artists to explore screenwriting, but including a script with your album was a fairly new concept when Childish decided to do so with Because the Internet.
Choker creates scenes for each song, presenting a specific setting and allowing the lyrics to fill in the dialogue. The characters don’t interact until page 28, which comes after “Lucid” plays. Like Gambino’s script, it’s the story of a boy, maybe a day in the life, very similar to the impression the album left me with. Seeing young artists explore various artistic mediums and weaving them with music shows a vision that goes beyond songwriting and recording. Craig Mack, Prince, J Dilla, and Keith Sweat are all thanked at the end, an interesting quartet to acknowledge.
In comic books, one of the most recycled themes is the phenomenon that occurs which alters a town or city, like a nuclear explosion, giving special powers to those who come in contact with the radiation. Frank Ocean is the kind of artist whose success is like that nuclear explosion for kids who have a passion for making music and we’re already starting to see a rise of his artistic offsprings.
I remember exactly where I was when I read it,” the 20-year-old told me during a recent visit to Brooklyn. It was a gray day, and we were huddled in a cramped doorway of an office building to escape some rain, sitting on the cement floor. His hair, dyed green, stood up in polyps like a soft coral reef. “I had just had my first experience with a dude,” he remembered. Abstract was around 16 at the time, and though he wouldn’t openly discuss his sexuality for another couple years, Ocean’s honesty changed his trajectory forever. “It was just like, Thank you. It saved me.” - "Meet Kevin Abstract, The Post-Everything Kid Making Songs"
Frank taught Kevin fearless honesty in artistry, which makes American Boyfriend the successor to Frank’s confessional. Kevin doesn’t just explore his sexuality but takes listeners into the many emotions of being an adolescent coming to terms with love, loss, and the endless search for understanding in a world that makes little sense. The production is minimal, allowing shimmering strings and radiating chords that give his stripped-down world a similar texture as Blonde. It’s the post-Odd Future pop album that could only be made by a kid who found inspiration in the rebellious spirit they exuded with moxie. Kevin and Choker are just two of a countless number of kids who artistically blossomed thanks to the internet and artists like Frank Ocean, who showed them they could have unique voices instead of following the leaders.
Artists are an extension of their influences. Art will always breed art, and it takes feeling the magic before making your own. Choker’s Peak and Kevin’s American Boyfriend are proof of how Frank Ocean’s presence has started to mold promising newcomers. Choker is far more raw and unrefined, but I have high hopes that he’ll master the music and stand before us fully evolved.
The thrill of discovering an artist so young and full of potential is knowing that their growth will be enjoyable to witness. Just look at how Kevin has evolved from MTV1987 to American Boyfriend, transitioning from rap to pop to ease.
There’s no ceiling for artists who have the heart of a fearless creative. And maybe that’s the best lesson Frank Ocean has gifted us, to create and tell our stories without fear.
By Yoh, aka Frank Yohcean, aka @Yoh31