Behind The Beat: Frank Ocean’s “Ivy”
“I do feel more like a visual artist when your storytelling is your own experiences and memories and personal wisdom and knowledge. A lot of that, when I pull from that place it comes along with pictures.” — Frank Ocean.
If there’s one word to encapsulate the illustrious career of Frank Ocean, it’s authenticity. A prolific songwriter, he’d pen tracks for a number of successful artists including Brandy and Justin Bieber, alongside being a member of the hip-hop collective Odd Future before turning his sights on a solo career. As an artist who values artistic integrity as paramount, he’d release his first mixtape, Nostalgia Ultra in 2011 and his debut album Channel Orange the following year to critical and commercial success. Ocean’s passion for artistic expression is evident within his enriching and rewarding body of work, spanning multiple mediums and outlets, ranging from visual albums (Endless), self penned screenplays (Godspeed), single releases (Chanel, Dear April) and magazine publications (Boys Don’t Cry).
In this instalment of Behind The Beat we delve into the lyricism of Frank Ocean and explore the making of Ivy, released on his 2016 autobiographical opus, Blond/Blonde.
Ocean often incorporates elements of fantasy into his songwriting, contrasting gritty realism with surreal imagery accompanied by complex storylines in an attempt to evoke romanticism and enhance the emotions of the lyrics. The artist elaborates, “You just romanticise something that’s in the past, which is fantasy because it’s not exactly how it went down…Fantasy plays the role of the supplement. I draw on fantasy to make things hyperreal, I guess, to saturate the colours.”
Frank prefers not to reveal too much when it comes to the lyrical inspiration of his work, specifically what is drawn from his past and fictional creations, preferring his listeners to immerse themselves in the descriptive narratives, “But you have fun with the imagery, and for me the whole concept that everything has to be… Like, nobody gets upset with a director when a director’s film isn’t about his life. People think that with a recording artist that shit has to be like a fucking play by play of their whole life, but it’s not. It’s imagery, and a little bit of satire.”
Ocean’s ability to conjure vivid and compelling imagery is evident throughout his body of work. On his debut single Novacane, he viscerally describes getting high in an attempt to connect to a love interest, ultimately consumed by the briefly eutrophic but ultimately intangible effect of the drug, rendering him somewhat devoid as he craves both sensation and numbness. The haunting tale Swim Good, recounts a tragic love story in which the central characters only form of escape from the heartache of their reality is to succumb to the sea. Similarly American Wedding recalls the intoxicating nature of young love as an impulsive decision to get married ends in a swift divorce, representing somewhat of a commentary on the disposable nature of the current state of matrimony. Ocean would recall his penchant for this form of lyricism in a 2012 interview, “I guess I’m just inspired to tell stories, you gotta make sure the listener is listening to you, so if you put it into a song, often times, if the song is striking enough, then you can really deliver the story most effectively while keeping the ear of the listener the whole time. I guess it all starts with the stories for me.”
Though on the surface different, each narrative is used as a vehicle to evoke universally recognised emotions as he notes, “My music definitely comes from a place of experience. Everything connects to a truth. Heartbreak, I imagine, has been the same emotion since the beginning of it all. I think the reason it might sound different coming from me is because, as a storyteller I might be telling the story differently than how it’s been told. But I don’t think I’m telling a new story. Maybe I’m wrong. Going through heartbreak was new for me.”
Ocean’s empirical experiences would inspire the fictitious elements of his song writing to varying extents. On Crack Rock, he recalls the desperation and alienation of addiction as the subject of the track struggles with his substance abuse. Frank would note the lyrical inspiration for the track being loosely based on his experience with addiction in the family, “I mean, ‘experience’ is an interesting word. I just bear witness. For a song like Crack Rock, my grandfather, who had struggled to be a father for my mum and my uncle … his second chance at fatherhood was me. In his early-20s, he had a host of problems with addiction and substance abuse. When I knew him, he was a mentor for the NA and the AA groups. I used to go to the meetings and hear these stories from the addicts — heroin and crack and alcohol. So stories like that influence a song like that.” Delving into the lyricism further, Ocean uses this narrative as a means to shed commentary on the indifference for those struggling with addiction and on the fringes of society while being exploited by corrupt law enforcement.
In addition to these expressive narratives, Frank also touches on social issues ranging from abortion rights and gay marriage. On the earnest track We All Try, he recalls the cognitive and emotional dissonance of opposing thoughts and value systems. In the end, optimism triumphs as Ocean expresses, “I still believe in man/ A wise one asked me why/ Cause I just don’t believe we’re wicked/ I know that we sin but I do believe we try/ We all try, the girls try/ the boys try/ Women try/ men try/ you and I try/try, we all try.” Frank would discuss the importance of expressing himself when writing his debut mix tape, “I wasn’t trying to make a record that people could relate to. I was just trying to make a record with the shit that I wanted to express. The shit that I wanted to get off my chest. Everybody has a unique experience, but it’s a feeling that’s so human that others can relate to it.”
As Ocean was on the cusp of releasing his debut full length album, Channel Orange, he’d post a letter on his Tumblr, revealing that the first person he fell in love with was a man. In the note he’d lament, “Most of the day I’d see him, and his smile. I’d hear his conversation and his silence… until it was time to sleep. Sleep I’d often share with him. By the time I realised I was in love, it was malignant, it was hopeless. There was no escaping, no negotiating with the feeling. No choice. It was my first love, it changed my life.” When Frank expressed his feelings, they weren’t reciprocated and he’d turn to the art of song writing as a form of catharsis and a way to express the emotions that would often consume him. As he’d reveal further, “By now I’ve written two albums, this being the second. I wrote to keep myself busy and sane. I wanted to create worlds that were rosier than mine. I tried to channel overwhelming emotions. I’m surprised at how far all of it has taken me.”
Ocean would touch on his intention with the post during a Guardian interview, “I knew that my star was rising, and I knew that if I waited I would always have somebody that I respected be able to encourage me to wait longer, to not say it till who knows when.” He’s not one for playing the game, clearly. “It was important for me to know that when I go out on the road and I do these things, that I’m looking at people who are applauding because of an appreciation for me,” he says. “I don’t have many secrets, so if you know that, and you’re still applauding … it may be some sort of sick validation but it was important to me. When I heard people talking about certain, you know, ‘pronouns’ in the writing of the record, I just wanted to — like I said on the post — offer some clarity; clarify, before the fire got too wild and the conversation became too unfocused and murky.”
As a reflection of his experience, unrequited love would become a significant lyrical theme evident throughout Ocean’s work. On Bad Religion, he details an impromptu therapy session with a taxi driver as he equates unrequited love with being part of a destructive doctrine, futile and ultimately consuming as he juggles the complexities of his life with this emotional baggage. He sings, “It’s a bad religion, ooh/ This unrequited love /To me, it’s nothin’ but a one-man cult /And cyanide in my styrofoam cup/ I can never make him love me/ Never make him love me.”
Ocean‘s use of male pronouns would also be evident on the airy track Forrest Gump, also featured on Channel Orange. Told primarily from the perspective of Gump’s love interest Jenny in the 1994 film of the same name, Frank uses intertextuality to provide his interpretation of the relationship between the couple in the movie, creating parallels with his own love life and utilising intricate references to the film, providing nuance and a connection between both mediums. To Ocean, authenticity as an artist is essential and to compromise by changing the pronouns was not an option, “When you write a song like Forrest Gump, the subject can’t be androgynous. It requires an unnecessary amount of effort. I don’t fear anybody… at all. So, to answer your question, yes, I could have easily changed the words. But for what? I just feel like it’s just another time now. I have no interest in contributing to that, especially with my art. It’s the one thing that I know will outlive me and outlive my feelings. It will outlive my depressive seasons.”
A particular “depressive season” would lead to Ocean moving to London while in the midst of working on his follow up to Channel Orange. After the critical acclaim of his first two releases, expectations would be high for the next project,which he began working on in late 2012. Frank would note how he’d use this anticipation as provocation to push himself creatively, “I think making this project, I haven’t shied away from expectation. I really tried to use this fuel… Because people have a positive association to what I do and what I make, and they expect something that’s good, so ok, how do you convert that into like, I don’t know, just a better moment, a better song, a better album, a better presentation.”
These sessions would birth the visual album Endless and Ocean’s second studio album Blond/Blonde, released a day apart in August 2016. Once again Frank would collaborate with long time collaborator Malay with new additions added to the team including French producer SebAstian and musician James Black.
Though initial sessions would begin at Electric Ladyland studios in New York, Ocean would experience writer’s block early into the album’s development, eventually overcome after reconnecting with a childhood friend going through turbulent times. This conversation would inspire the lyrical direction Ocean would take with the project as he felt the need to write from a more overt autobiographical lens than previous releases and as he told the Guardian, “made me feel as though I should talk about the way I grew up more.”
The development of Blond/Blonde and Endless would take significant more time than Channel Orange, as Ocean would take his time with cultivating the release, “I wrote ‘Channel Orange’ in two weeks… The end product wasn’t always that gritty, real-life depiction of the real struggle that happened.”
To evoke the struggle of his experiences in a succinct and raw manner, fantasy would be utilised less as a writing device and instead Ocean would present honest glimpses into his state of mind as he reflected on the convoluted dynamics that cause connections to grow, prosper and implode as well as his complicated relationship with fame.
This isn’t to say the song writing would be transparent in comparison to previous work as Ocean implores vibrant metaphors and clever entendres in tandem with stark and candid confessionals, creating work as poetic as previous material yet seemingly more unrefined. On Self Control he reflects on a mutual break up in which incompatibility stems from a lack of consonance, “That was written about someone who I was actually in a relationship with, who wasn’t an unrequited situation,” he said. “It was mutual, it was just we couldn’t really relate. We weren’t really on the same wavelength” Ocean highlights the importance of timing in building connections as he ponders if this would have affected the outcome of their relationship had they both came from the same upbringing and shared the childhood experiences that shape an individual, “You cut your hair but you used to live a blonded life/ Wish I was there/ wish we’d grown up on the same advice/ And our time was right.”
As so much of Blond/Blonde revolves around the past and it’s role in shaping the present, the nature of memory is an integral motif that presents itself throughout the album. The stellar Ivy is one such example as Ocean reflects on a relationship in concurrent flashes, holding onto particular memories while desiring to create new ones despite the dissolution of this partnership. Ivy would be written during these album sessions, produced by Ocean and Malay and first performed in Munich alongside Seigfried in 2013, three years before it would find it’s place on Blond/Blonde.
The track begins abruptly, signaled by dreamy guitar strums as Frank declares:
I thought that I was dreaming when you said you love me
The start of nothing
I had no chance to prepare
I couldn’t see you coming
The start of nothing
Ocean recalls being confounded with this declaration of love, though foreshadows the eventual dissolution by referring to it as the “start of nothing”, blurring the lines between what he knew then and retrospectively. While the first half of the verse is written in a past tense, Ocean then provides a glimpse into his present emotions as he declares, “I could hate you now/It’s quite alright to hate me now/ When we both know that deep down/The feeling still deep down is good”. Despite their volatile past, Frank’s affection endures as he posits that his past love may still possibly feel the same.
As he has the ability to contemplate their relationship in hindsight, he’s critical of the devotion his spouse gave while they were together but reinforces his own commitment, “If I could see through walls/ I could see you’re faking /If you could see my thoughts you would see our faces /Safe in my rental like an armoured truck back then.”
Ocean utters the words “back then” while recalling specific memories with his lover, consumed by the fleeting past he wishes to return to as he acknowledges the inability to reclaim former relationships lost through the passage of time. Though he claims, “Everything sucked back then”, he relives the memories of them together, even if their partnership was not perfect.
The lack of a conventional song structure further exemplifies the pathos of the track, beginning with the chorus repeated throughout, akin to that of a recurrent memory replayed over and over. Ocean begins his reflection by reminiscing on the time his partner declared his love, positing that behind all the conflict this endearment remains, though by analysing his memories further, he identifies cracks. To counter this, he keeps returning to the most comforting impression, “I thought that I was dreaming when you said you loved me.” Frank would discuss the nature of memory in a 2016 interview, noting, “How we experience memory sometimes, it’s not linear. We’re not telling the stories to ourselves, we know the story, we’re just seeing it in flashes overlaid.”
During the bridge, Ocean recalls the point in which the partnership dissolved, cynically predicting that the subject of the song would recover quickly, “I broke your heart last week/ You’ll probably feel better by the weekend /Still remember, had you going crazy/ Screaming my name /The feeling deep down is good.” Ocean makes some concessions, acknowledging that both parties were to blame for the breakup as he expresses regret for the hurtful things he’s said while hoping the sentiment is reciprocated, “All the things I didn’t mean to say /I didn’t mean to do/There were things you didn’t need to say/ Did you mean to?”
The track ends with Ocean’s distorted voice as he shrieks, “I’ve been dreamin’ of you/ dreamin’ of you/ I’ve been dreamin’, dreaming” followed by the sound of feedback and destruction. Though he continues to return to these memories of the distant past as a form of comfort and as a means to process confusion, they continue to haunt him in his dreams. While awake, we can edit and mould memories to serve a particular purpose within the bounds of a reality that we control, in our dreams however, we can’t guide how the narrative will be replayed. Ivy is a plant that never loses it’s leaves, made into wreathes and given to newlywed couples in Ancient Greece as a symbol of faithfulness. Though Frank attributes this relationship or “feeling” to enduring and faithful ivy, the prospect that this may not be reciprocal is almost too much to bear, exemplified by the crashes heard as the song ends.
Vocal manipulation would be utilised throughout the album to represent Ocean’s scattered state of mind, often changing within a song and represented by these tonal shifts, “Sometimes I felt like you weren’t hearing enough versions of me within a song, ’cause there was a lot of hyperactive thinking. Even though the pace of the album’s not frenetic, the pace of ideas being thrown out is.”
This technique is instantly recognisable on the opening track Nikes as Ocean’s voice is noticeably pitched up during the first verse. A running commentary on the trappings of a hedonistic lifestyle and consumerism, intertwined with superficial relationships, the high voice is a representation of the naivety of this state of mind. The second verse features Ocean’s natural register as he declares, “We’ll let you guys prophesy /We gon’ see the future first.” This deeper tone represents an enlightened and matured state of mind as he differentiates himself from the perspective noted in the first verse. Instead he’s attained clarity about his place in the world and his relationship to a love interest as he laments, “I may be younger but I’ll look after you/ We’re not in love/ but I’ll make love to you/ When you’re not here/ I’ll save some for you/ I’m not him but I’ll mean something to you.” Ivy features vocal manipulation to make Ocean sound younger, capturing the youthful essence of the lyrical content as he recalls distant memories.
While lyrically, Ivy wouldn’t differ much from the early draft premiered in Munich, the song would go through somewhat of a sonic overhaul during development. Ocean would present an early draft of the track to Vampire Weekend guitarist Rostam Batmanglij, “Frank and I were scheduled to do a session in the spring of 2011, and it fell through, and we never met in person, but we emailed back and forth a little bit. When Channel Orange came out [in 2012], I sent Frank an email and I was like “I’m listening to your record,” and that led to us hanging out in New York and staying in touch, and when I got to L.A. I went over to his place and he played me what he was working on and one of the things he played me was what became “Ivy.”
Rostam would elaborate further on the sessions, “And as soon as he played it for me, I said, “I have a vision for what that can sound like,” and so then a few months later he brought the session here to my studio and I plugged in my electric guitar and I just sort of played the chords I heard in my head when he had played me the original version. I was kind of finding the chords as I was playing them, and those are the chords you hear on the record. I knew what I wanted the sound to be, I knew I wanted to use frame reverb and I knew I wanted to use this tape plug-in that modulates pitch. And it was very quickly that it came together.”
The result would be a sparse arrangement driven primarily by a number of distorted guitar riffs, complimenting the subjective nature of the lyrics. The repetition of these power chords reflects the state of the narrator, as he constantly retraces and relives the memories of the past over and over much like the riffs playing on repeat in the background. Ocean would note the importance of creating a sonic landscape as atmospheric and immersive as the lyrics, “When I’m trying to make a song even the form of it, even the part that doesn’t have words, the parts that don’t have words, it’s still really trying to make a photograph out of something you can never see.” Part of this picture is to evoke emotion as Frank describes, “They’re just chords, just melodies. I don’t know what combination of those objects is gonna make me feel how I need to feel. But I know precisely the feeling that needs to happen.”
While Ivy details a particularly brutal exercise in reminiscing turbulent memories of the past, Ocean’s retrospective venture would lead to a form of closure as evidenced on the penultimate track on Blond/Blonde, Godspeed. In contrast to his desperate plea for a reconnection with his lover on Ivy, Frank declares behind melancholic synths,
“Wishing you godspeed, glory
There will be mountains you won’t move
(Ooh, ooh, ooh)
Still I’ll always be there for you how I do
I let go of my claim on you
It’s a free world
You look down on where you came from sometimes
But you’ll have this place to call home always”
Frank finds closure in unshackling himself from the purgatory of a relationship only tangible in his fantasies and instead wishes his unrequited love well, further embellished by the sound of church organs and Kim Burrell on background vocals. Ocean would also write a screenplay titled Godspeed, centred around the adventures of a young man named Steely in a Sci-Fi inspired universe. Frank would discuss the screenplay further noting, “I wrote a story in the middle — it’s called ‘Godspeed’. It’s basically a reimagined part of my boyhood. Boys do cry, but I don’t think I shed a tear for a good chunk of my teenage years. It’s surprisingly my favourite part of my life so far. Surprising, to me, because the current phase is what I was asking the cosmos for when I was a kid. Maybe that part had it’s rough stretches too, but in my rearview mirror it’s getting small enough to convince myself it was all good. And really though… It’s still all good.”
When pondering why Ocean was compelled to create such a raw and unguarded piece of work with Blond/Blonde, stripped of the fantasy evident in his previous work, it seems to stem from an exercise in catharsis and a means to document a truthful journey and process a turbulent upbringing. Frank would discuss further, “There’s no fantasy on this record, and yet it’s music, it’s all for better or for worse autobiographical, and it’s like my experience. The foundation, what’s made me who I am.”
To somewhat add to the poeticism, the release would also signal Ocean’s emancipation from his record label as Endless would fulfil his contractual obligations and Blond/Blonde would be released on Frank’s own label, Boys Don’t Cry, a fitting home for such a brilliant and personal work of art. Frank elaborates, “When I do look back, I feel like from Channel Orange to Blonde was a big jump for me in terms of not just the way things sounded but the way things looked and were glued together. I’m not speaking only to the creative part of it, but to executing a strategy that took a lot of balls, and also — what’s the word I’m looking for? — like, not “spycraft” exactly. When it went according to plan, it felt like a huge relief. I could move however I wanted in the business and also have all my things with me. And that was the complexity in that strategy — how not to just get away from a record label but to get away from a record label at the same time as you’re getting everything you’ve made that they own.”
Frank Ocean’s utilisation of fantasy is a primary theme of the narratives embedded in his lyrics, prevalent on Nostalgia Ultra and Channel Orange. The autobiographical nature of Ivy is just one of many featured on Blond/Blonde marking a departure in his song writing while still maintaining the incredible quality of his earlier work. This departure may just be a brief detour as Ocean notes in a 2019 interview his evolving thoughts on lyrical expression:
“I believed for a very long time that there was strength in vulnerability, and I really don’t believe that anymore. “Strength” and “vulnerability” sound opposite as words. And so to combine them sounds wise, but I don’t know if it is wise. It’s just this realisation that hit me: “Oh, right, it’s a choice whether you will be truthful or a liar.” If I start to tell a story and then I decide not to tell the story anymore, I can stop. It’s my story. The expectation for artists to be vulnerable and truthful is a lot, you know? — when it’s no longer a choice. Like, in order for me to satisfy expectations, there needs to be an outpouring of my heart or my experiences in a very truthful, vulnerable way. I’m more interested in lies than that. Like, give me a full motion-picture fantasy.” — Frank Ocean.
Jon Caramanica (2016) “Frank Ocean Is Finally Free, Musically Intact” — The New York Times | Diane Solway (2019) Frank Ocean Makes Moves Like Nobody Else — W Magazine | Tom Jackson (2019) “GAYLETTER” — GAY LETTER | Conor Herbert, (2019) “From French electro-house to Frank Ocean: SebastiAn steps out.” — Pile tes | Steven J. Horowitz (2017) “From Frank Ocean to Carly Rae Jepsen, Rostam Breaks Down His Catalog” — Billboard | Alex Frank “New York State of Mind” — Vulture | Dan Hyman (2016) “Producer Malay On Zayn’s Reinvention and What Frank Ocean’s Up To” — Pitchfork | Rebecca Nicholson (2012) “Frank Ocean: the most talked-about man in music” — Guardian |