2012’s been a busy year for Frank Ocean. The R&B singer released Channel Orange, a game-changing record that debuted at #2 on the Billboard 200. He played high-profile gigs at the MTV Video Music Awards and Saturday Night Live. He opened up about a failed romance with a man on his Tumblr.
Now the Odd Future affiliate, who was born Lonny Breaux, has spoken to GQ about his humble upbringing in New Orleans, his rapid ascent to stardom, and the post that could have potentially derailed his career. Here’s what we learned:
1. The dominant male figure in his youth was his maternal grandfather, a former drug addict.
Ocean’s father abandoned him and his mother when he was six, leaving a void that was ultimately filled by his flawed but resolute granddad. “He’d had a really troubled life with crack, heroin, and alcohol and had kids he wasn’t an ideal parent to. I was his second chance, and he gave it his best shot.”
2. Like most people starting out as songwriters in L.A., he had to grind it out with odd jobs.
“The first four and a half years was me in the studio every day, writing songs for other people. I had jobs, too — eleven jobs. I worked at Kinko’s, Fatburger, Subway–I was a sandwich artist–and I was a claims processor at Allstate Insurance.”
3. He was signed to Def Jam twice…as different two “artists.”
Def Jam originally signed him in 2009, when he still went by Lonny Breaux, but didn’t give him any money for recording. Later, after he changed his name to Christopher Francis Ocean and self-released the internet smash Nostalgia, Ultra, Def Jam approached him again with a new offer. His response: “I just told them, ‘Give me $1 million if you want the next album.'”
4. As far as he’s concerned, legends like Hendrix, Prince, and Freddie Mercury are his peers.
“I never think about myself as an artist working in this time. I think about it in macro…A friend of mine jokes that I have a painstaking royalty complex. Like maybe I was a duke in a past life.”
5. His infamous Tumblr post, in which he revealed an affair with a man, was as much a personal release as a response to rumors.
Journalists and listeners had begun to take note of the male pronouns in some of his lyrics, and rumors were swirling. So shortly before Channel Orange‘s release, Ocean addressed them head on and posted the now-famous open letter. But it wasn’t purely reactionary – he had written the piece months before for inclusion in the record’s liner notes. Putting it online for the world to see, he says, lifted a tremendous burden. “The night I posted it, I cried like a f—ing baby. It was like all the frequency just clicked to a change in my head. All the receptors were now receiving a different signal, and I was happy.”
6. He is very, very proud of Channel Orange.
Ocean doesn’t mince words when it comes to his landmark achievement, calling it “one of the most brilliant pieces of art that has come out in my generation.” Truth be told, most critics are inclined to agree.