This past December, Frank Ocean got on the phone with Vegyn and Emmett Cruddas, the co-hosts of his Apple Music show, Blonded Radio, to discuss Ocean’s evolving approach to music, his recent relocation to New York City, his pop-up activism in the 2018 midterms (he made T-shirts to reward people in swing districts who could prove they voted), and his fashion plans for 2019. What follows is a snapshot of the mind of an artist as the world eagerly awaits the arrival of his next big project.
EMMETT CRUDDAS: I wanted to start off by asking you about the gesture of making your Instagram public. I know you don’t do a lot of interviews, but how do you feel about having the opportunity to say what you want to say when you want to say it without being mediated like that?
FRANK OCEAN: I feel like there was dissonance between how I was seen by the audience and where I was actually, so that contributed to the decision to make my Instagram public, for sure. But there’s also the idea of dialogue and discourse and conversation—like theater where the audience can interrupt you versus the television.
VEGYN: With that in mind, do you think there’s any misconceptions people might have about you that you’re trying to confront?
OCEAN: I feel like between the numbers of zero to ten, in between every number there’s infinity, you know? I would describe a person as the space between the symbols, beyond the language. That dissonance—the word being a big container for what I was feeling…the way I was seen was not even close to correct. It’s still not correct, either.
With some pop stars, the idea of them is maybe more balanced or fully formed: a half-dozen magazine covers, x amount of interviews, a daily influx of media. There’s a way you wanna be in the visual press, although you could potentially be misrepresented; when you’re completely minimal with media, there’s a lot of pressure on whatever one thing you’re doing, the stakes are higher. Social media helps that, ’cause you’re fully in control and can message that how you want.
CRUDDAS: With regards to reflecting and putting out a more rich tapestry of self-representation, I’m interested in how you use cover songs as part of your repertoire. “Moon River” was the one release this year, and they’ve always figured as part of your work, going way back to the Coldplay song [“Strawberry Swing”]. What’s your method for interacting with a song people may already have an idea of—with other people’s music?
OCEAN: Nowadays, I have to live with the song for a bit and I have to see if it’s worthwhile to interpret it first. To see what I can do with it, where I can insert my voice. In the past, I would just like a song and I wouldn’t think about it as seriously as when I do “Close to You” or “Moon River” or “At Your Best…” It’s much more deliberate than when I was just focused on the rap mixtape approach of taking a beat or flow, swapping the lyrics and performing it. The performance almost being the stream-of-consciousness, in-the-moment thing, whereas now I would much prefer having the song be with me for more time before I have to record it.
VEGYN: Are these records you keep coming back to?
OCEAN: Certainly for [Aaliyah’s] “At Your Best…,” I was at a party and it came on, and I had to sing it. And I didn’t connect it to ATL, with T.I. and Lauren London. I watched that movie a lot for some reason when I was 18 and first moved to L.A. I think because it reminded me of home, and that song played when T.I. had the El Camino and first kissed New New, but I didn’t connect it when I was at that party years later that it was something from nostalgia. I started living with it, thinking about how I could do it justice.
With “Close to You,” it was a similar thing, only without the nostalgia. I was living in a hotel, and I remember listening to it and being really nailed to the floor by Stevie Wonder’s interpretation of it. That version moved into my favorite-songs-of-all-time list, right there with Prince’s “When You Were Mine.” I don’t know what creates that feeling of “I have to sing this song.”
With “Moon River,” though, that was more random. Someone asked me to sing it, and that was the only reason I listened to it. People ask me to do a lot of things I don’t do [laughs], but when I listened to it, it was something that I wanted to do because I thought the song was small and beautiful and neat. It’s the “ocean in the drop” idea, all these feelings inside this small thing. Living with it, listening to the many versions, thinking about who I would work on it with and what I would go for in interpreting it. Of the covers I’ve done, “At Your Best…” and “Moon River” are my favorites.
From tour, by the time it came around to playing “Close to You” live, I had even more time with it: There are songs you find your way through after you’ve played it a few times. Sometimes you lose something after being familiar with it, something in your voice is different. Being in front of an audience and that still being new and scary to me, the adrenaline and everything mixed together didn’t make it feel like this stale thing I’d done a million times. It felt charged with a special energy.
VEGYN: How did you find moving to New York? What do you like about living there?
OCEAN: I like it a lot because I spend more time at the house. I think it comes from living in hotels, but when I’m in L.A., I find myself in my car a lot.… Which is stress. In New York, it’s the first time in a minute that I’ve had my own space that’s not a hotel and not some rented home, where everything around me is mine, and that’s been really cozy and comfortable this past year. When I first got to the place, I was sleeping in the living room on this mattress Spike [Jonze] told me to get—the Duxiana—which is so nice it has an owners’ club. [laughs] It was in the middle of my living room, and I’d wake up feeling unsuccessful for the most part: Because I had nothing around. It wasn’t like I had things on the way, either; nothing was coming and there was nothing up. The feeling was absurd, but now I have things, and that’s nice. That and having the seasons. I guess I had them when I was in London, but that’s almost just the opposite of L.A. I enjoy the energy working project to project in New York that I can get from looking out my window or going downstairs: It’s the people, their pace, the unsaid energy.
CRUDDAS: What have you found inspiring this year?
OCEAN: I’ve been taking pictures of everything. I’m at this hotel. Just pictures of the sheet company’s labels, the floor mats and towels. I like that there’s no Sheetrock or plaster, it’s all wood and fabric walls only. I think that’s cool.
Oh, and before I left New York, I met up with Peter Hujar’s archivist. They came by the house, and I went through all of the photos he shot in his life. That was inspiring as hell because of how diverse his subject matter was, from a series on clowns to the piers of New York in the ’80s, which was a big gay hangout for cruising, to portraits of his friends and celebrities at the time to the drag scene to landscapes and just the life of the photographer. How much he documented was inspiring.
Those are the first things that come to mind as of late.
VEGYN: Have you got any New Year’s resolutions?
OCEAN: I didn’t do my last one, to be honest with you. My last one was self-decoration, and I haven’t finished any of my jewelry, so I’m gonna carry that on to next year.
CRUDDAS: I wanted to ask about bringing Blonded back for the midterm elections and how you perceive your own cultural cachet. Do you think the stakes are higher for artists politicizing their output in 2018, interacting with actual politics?
OCEAN: The stakes feel higher now, yes. I was excited about the idea of incentivizing people to vote and to get excited about midterms, because people aren’t usually excited about voting at midterms. Getting seven or eight thousand people who might not have otherwise voted to participate like that is a testament to what public figures can do or encourage with their voice. It feels responsible, especially at this time. Maybe also at many times prior, but it feels less like responsibility and more like a great opportunity that I had and still have.
CRUDDAS: You should be proud, I think you genuinely did something.
VEGYN: Especially when looking at these margins of less than a thousand…
OCEAN: Yeah, there was a lot of seats in the House picked up, types of people who hadn’t been in those positions before, which was beautiful. It was a success when I look at it—it felt like something I’d like to continue doing. [With politicizing your own merchandise] sometimes you have to know what people want and say, “Let’s do a trade.”
VEGYN: What will you be wearing for New Year’s Eve? What fit can we expect you to break into 2019 in?
OCEAN: I didn’t get the fit that I wanted for my birthday, which consisted of the Balenciaga python-leather pants and a pink skintight tank. I was gonna get the acid green shadow fade, too. Two-tone. Acid green to brunet. And the cowboy boots with the chrome heel and toe.
VEGYN: You are the snake in your own boot.
CRUDDAS: Since this is for GENTLEMEN’S QUARTERLY, do you have a message to all the men out there for how they can do better in 2019?
OCEAN: Oh! The SCOTTeVEST! Men need to get hip to the SCOTTeVEST. You can put anything in it. Your water bottle, your cell phone, your motorcycle helmet—you can put all that shit inside the SCOTTeVEST. That’s the infomercial vest, really deep pockets.
VEGYN: You’re a gilet advocate?
OCEAN: Right, but it’s modular, too. You can also zip the arm on—it’s like a paramilitary vest. It’s also a name that’s ready for rap lyrics.
CRUDDAS: Them ones. That’s how you shift the culture.
VEGYN: Are there any clothing trends you want to make a comeback?
OCEAN: I thought Marithé + François Girbaud was gonna come back, but it didn’t. That would be nice.
CRUDDAS: Are you about to drop the skin-care routine?
OCEAN: Man, listen…some days, like today, I feel very beautiful. But some days, like in the winter, when I wear a lot of knit hats, my skin doesn’t like that. My mom told me years ago that you gotta get somebody to stitch the silk inside the lining of the cap so it doesn’t irritate your skin, ’cause your skin is sensitive. I didn’t listen to my mom, but I really do believe in a night cream. I feel like men just go to sleep. They may wash their face or they don’t even bother—they go to sleep with the day face on. You really need to do a gentle wash and put a night moisturizer on. You can’t have the retinol in your creams in the day because it makes you more sun-sensitive, so you wanna throw that on at night. I need the night cream because when I wake up I feel very beautiful, moisturized and ready to have people making eye contact with me, ready to look above my eyebrow, below the eyebrow. [laughs] That’s the life hack right there. It’s been all these years, and Pharrell still hasn’t given us the keys yet. He just says “exfoliate,” but it’s not just “exfoliate”: We need more keys.
VEGYN: Do you have any vices?
OCEAN: I used to love mezcal. That’s like the adult/underground version of tequila. I was in Art Basel in Florida—not Switzerland, unfortunately—I was out having a few cocktails with friends, dancing, et cetera. I went to the fair the next day, and everything was okay. And all of a sudden I felt I was going down [laughter], I was about to pass out in the hallway of the convention center, so I took a knee and I had to sit against the wall.… Rocky passed out at a fashion show, and said they had him held up like a ventriloquist [laughter], and that’s kinda how I felt as they put me outside. I sat outside in the fresh air for a couple of hours before I felt comfortable going back in. I haven’t had a drink since, so it’s not a answer to your question, but yeah.
Maybe my vice is that I watch way too much TV news. I know that I’m not getting real information, but I still watch it. I wish my vice was VH1 reality-TV shows, but it’s not—it’s MSNBC. MSNBC is Love & Hip Hop with better vocabulary and more range, but it’s the same thing. Very much entertainment.
CRUDDAS: Best night you’ve had in 2018?
OCEAN: I don’t wanna give y’all the exclusive exclusive, but you know what? The new Christmas for me that makes me feel like a youngster is the night I come home from a long trip and I have boxes in the entrance to my apartment of things I forgot I had ordered or things people send me. That’s the new Christmas. I feel very blessed, grateful, and excited, happy chemicals rushing through my veins, when I walk into my apartment and I’ve got FedEx, DHL, UPS boxes, Worldnet boxes. As simple as that is. My box cutter is greasy from all the tape.
VEGYN: When are you gonna write the hit holiday song?
OCEAN: I’m never writing that.
VEGYN: But it’s the check that keeps on giving!
OCEAN: I don’t know. Tonight! Let’s do it! We can smoke a Christmas tree and write a classic.
Styled by Frank Ocean & Rita Zebdi