Sensitive, out (whatever that means) soul singer Frank Ocean is up for six Grammys, recently saw his beloved debut album channel ORANGE go gold and was the de facto good guy in a recent scuffle with pop culture's Big Bad Wolf, Chris Brown. Right now, Frank Ocean is America's sweetheart. The primary function, then of Jeff Himmelman's 6,000+ word profile on the singer/songwriter for the upcoming issue of the New York Times Magazine, is taking Ocean's image down a peg or two. "Frank Ocean Can Fly" does so immediately by leading with Ocean's snobbery when faced with Himmelman's economy rental car: "Frank Ocean did not want to ride in my rented Ford Fusion; that much was clear," goes the piece's first sentence. Instead, he had Himmelman drive one of his BMWs — Ocean couldn't on account of his New Year's Eve pot bust.
In the piece, Ocean is described as "perfectly courteous, but firm," and "challenging." His first interview with Himmelman started with five minutes of Ocean staring at his phone, not acknowledging Himmelman. He announced himself as a difficult subject by saying, "Here's what I think about music and journalism: The most important thing is to just press play."
At one point, Ocean and Himmelman visit a garage where Ocean is having a BMW restored. He's getting the steering wheel put on the right "because he wants it that way" and takes issue with a non-issue:
When he made it around to the front of the car, he noticed a piece of black metalwork with an insignia on it. "What's up with the language?" he asked. "Do we need the language on it?" The owner of the garage said he could get Ocean a plain black one, but he didn't think it was necessary because once the engine was complete you'd never see it. "It doesn't matter if you can see it," Ocean said.
The piece has him openly calculating in a way that's expected of prefab pop stars but rarely expressed, especially from serious musicians with irrefutable talent like Ocean's. He says:
I have no delusions about my likability, in every scenario. I know that in order to get things done the way you want them, oftentimes your position will be unpopular...That's why image is so important. That's why you've got to practice brevity when you do interviews like this. I could try to make myself likable to you so you could write a piece that keeps my image in good standing, because I'm still selling this, or I could just say, ‘My art speaks for itself.'
The piece sheds light on Ocean's eccentricity, an unsurprising trait given his creativity. It also lays out Ocean's extreme self-confidence, which is divided from arrogance by the finest of lines. Chairman and CEO of Ocean's label Def Jam, Barry Weiss, talks about Ocean's "bullish" negotiations during the recording of channel ORANGE:
"Frank was so bullish and so optimistic and so confident about the album that he was creating that he had his representatives call us up and say that he deserves a lot more money," Weiss says. "I don't believe that I had actually heard anything at that point. But we did something atypical, that most labels I don't think would do. We stepped up. We wrote the check. Virtually album-unheard, sight-unseen, we believed so much in this guy that we actually wrote the check." Ocean has claimed in the past that he demanded $1 million. When I asked about that, Weiss said only, "I plead the fifth."
Ocean is also an idealist. This goes for his work ("Art's everything we hope life would be, a lot of times") and attitude regarding the sinking ship he boarded when he started releasing records:
"Everyone knows the record industry is falling apart," [Ocean's manager] Chris Clancy told me. "Frank says: ‘Let's be progressive. What can we do?' The record business is what you can't do. The metrics of success: Soundscan, BDS. . . . " - BDS is a measure of radio plays and still something of a bible for record labels - "If you're playing that game, you're in a world that's shrinking." Ocean thought enough of radio to release a 9-minute-53-second song as a single. And it's not just radio, or his label: he will be performing at the Grammys this weekend, but he was willing to do so only if they let him play the song he wanted to play. Otherwise, he would have been happy to sit in the audience.
Much like Beyoncé, Ocean applies his deep belief in himself to his craft — deviating from the norms of bald-faced pride and lyrical boastfulness that stuff public communicators' perceptions of themselves down our throats, Ocean's art is about celebrating himself through showing, not telling. Press play, indeed.
[Image via Getty]