In mid-April, GAYLETTER published a rare interview with Frank Ocean, in which the typically media-shy artist opened up about his history working as a songwriter for hire. In response to a question about the takeaways he’d glean from this experience, Frank recounted a story about how he’d learned “to be quicker in the studio,” as a result of a “lifesav[ing]” invitation he’d received to work for free out of a professional studio:
“So I’m in there writing, and I’m stuck on half a verse. I can’t finish this verse. I’m like, I don’t know, I can’t put it together. [The person who extended the invitation initially] walks in and says, ‘How many songs you got?’ I’m like, ‘I got half a verse.’ And he looks at me and says, ‘You can’t come in here and write half a verse.’ So I play him half the verse and he’s like, ‘Well, that’s good, so you can stay.’ So I stayed, but I started trying to really figure out how to write songs. Eventually, after a couple years of doing that, I could write at least a couple songs in a four-hour block. It was just from learning, from writing dozens and dozens of demos.” —Frank Ocean
Given how notoriously selective he is with his output, it’s fascinating to think about Ocean cranking out songs like a shift worker on an assembly line.
Reading this as a fan, you may even find yourself feeling greedy or curious, wondering how many of these demos you’d instantly add to your listening rotation and/or what they might suggest about Frank’s evolution as a musician. Inconveniently, as is so often the case with Frank, the answers to these questions are not readily available.
Fortunately, this stretch of Frank’s career is actually a little easier to demystify than some of the stretches that have followed. Hidden online in plain sight is an oft-forgotten compilation of 62 leaked tracks from this era, informally referred to by fans as The Lonny Breaux Collection. Though this collection has effectively been disavowed by Frank, who clarified when it initially hit the internet in 2011, that “[he] had no hand in writing [several of these songs, and] only laid reference vo[cals] on em because [he] was being paid,” he didn’t suggest a lack of creative input entirely, subsequently stating, “the rest are incomplete ideas, reference songs that were sent out for placement on other artists, records that were never intended to represent me.”
Frank’s latter disclaimer, about how none of these songs were ever “intended to represent [him],” is instructive for how one should calibrate their expectations before listening to these leaks; for Frank, the routine of working as a songwriter evidently meant spending years recording songs for other artists, virtually all of which he felt the need to distance himself from immediately once they had become available for public consumption.
Imagine Frank Ocean, eternally uncompromising in his artistic vision, walking into work one day and being forced to record the lyrics: “Everywhere I go its a media frenzy / All they seem to care about is me, Kim or Lindsay,” as he did on the leaked reference track, “Focus.” The song itself sounds like a terrible Fergie-imitation, seemingly written for a vapid reality-star-turned-singer like Paris Hilton. It’s not difficult to appreciate why Frank would want to distance himself from this reference.
The same could easily be said about the song “Standing Still,” which begins with the stanza: “I’m standing by your locker in the hallway after class. Swear I’m amazed, yeah / The drawing in my binder: every picture I put a halo on your head.” Hearing Frank sing these lyrics, it’s clear he wasn’t exactly mining the depths of his soul to draw from personal experience. Incidentally, Frank was a credited writer on the song “Bigger,” from Justin Bieber’s first album in 2009, so it’s reasonable to hypothesize this song—with its juvenile lyrics—was potentially written for him. Regardless, at no point in his career has he personally sought to curate the brand of a teenage heartthrob, so his aversion to having his name attached to this song is also understandable.
Lyrics aside, it’s a testament to Frank’s immense talent that “Standing Still” is an enjoyable pop song. Against all odds, Frank manages to enliven the formulaic song structure with a catchy chorus, expressive vocal delivery, and a massive bridge.
Notably, this is an apt description of a number of songs in this collection. Simply by virtue of Frank’s transcendent singing voice and effortless knack for crafting earworms, songs like “Can’t Be The Last Time,” “Sucka For Love,” and my personal favorite, “JOB,” are far more enjoyable to listen to than they should be based on their generic subject matter and musicality. They’re not exactly predictive of the artist Frank would eventually evolve into, but they are nonetheless a peek into the hypothetical road-not-traveled of pop stardom Frank once seemed like he might venture down.
Of course, I’d be lying if I were to say all 62 songs in this collection are keepers. Attempting to listen to the leaks in their entirety, you quickly realize there’s an upper limit to how even an incredible talent like Frank Ocean can successfully elevate poorly constructed songs on natural gifts alone.
Unfortunately, 2008-2010 was simply not a creatively fertile period for pop and R&B music production. A majority of songs on this collection—like “Blasted” and “Private Show,” for example—are scored by exceedingly artificial synth sounds and tedious four-on-the-floor drum patterns, all of which sound like the respective instrumentals of Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling” and Ne-Yo’s “Closer” spawned an awful love child.
Above all else, this library of leaks is ultimately forgettable. Say what you will about Frank Ocean, but this is not an adjective you typically hear thrown around in relation to his artistry. It’s not a slog to get through the records or anything—it’s easy to keep yourself entertained by speculating which artists you think Frank was writing for based on the various voices he’s affecting—but at a certain point, you are undoubtedly listening more for novelty than any other purpose.
Listening to The Lonny Breaux Collection feels like watching a young talent slum it in the minor leagues. Simply through the professional context of having to write multiple songs per session in a range of styles, Frank blended seamlessly into the pack of other working songwriters rather than standing out as the auteur we now know him to be.
Overwhelmingly, this causes me to wonder: if virtually all working songwriters possess aspirations to be performers in their own right, then which generational talents is the industry currently stifling with these professional demands?
Unfortunately, we’ll probably never know.