Frank Ocean: Putting a Dent in Songwriting and Music Production

This is an early post in a series called “Dentworthy” where we share posts, articles, and tidbits from the web that shed light on how to Dent the Universe.

When Ocean first came out to L.A. in 2006, his money ran out before he ever came close to getting his record done. To support himself, he worked as a “sandwich artist” at Subway, at Fatburger, Kinko’s, AT&T, and as a claims processor at Allstate, among other jobs. Eventually he discovered that it was possible to make money writing songs for other people; he knew he could sing, so he connected with producers and musicians who submitted tracks for major-label artists. The producers made the sonic beds and Ocean helped write lyrics and melodies, contributing to songs that would eventually be recorded by artists like Justin Bieber (“Bigger”), Brandy (“1st and Love”) and John Legend (“Quickly”).

Even then, he bristled at interference. “I had a problem listening to anybody,” he said. “I had a problem listening to A.-and-R.’s telling me how a song was supposed to sound, or what this artist’s vibe was.” As his profile grew, he began to work with producers and beat makers who liked his writing style and would let him use their studios free. Toward the end of 2008, he was making enough money to devote himself to music full time. He moved out of his apartment at 28th and Crenshaw and into a nicer place in Beverly Hills. In time he caught the attention of Christopher (Tricky) Stewart, the producer behind such hits as Rihanna’s “Umbrella” and Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies.” Stewart helped Ocean make a go of it as a solo artist and get signed to Def Jam at the end of 2009.

The deal didn’t work out the way Ocean hoped. “I don’t know where to begin,” he said when I asked him what went wrong. “I think ultimately the problem with it was that nobody was ready to act on anything, any of the language [of the contract], except the language to keep me in it.” Def Jam never gave him a recording budget and basically left him on the shelf. After twisting for several months, Ocean decided to write and produce a record on his own. He solicited beats and backing tracks from friends, and he trolled the Internet for instrumentals to popular songs that he could repurpose with his own melodies and lyrics. (His piano skills at the time were pretty basic — today he takes piano and music-theory lessons every morning except Sundays — so he wasn’t going to write a record by sitting down at the keyboard.)

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From: New York Times Magazine
By: Jeff Himmelman