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How Frank Ocean Sailed Away From Def Jam



Frank Ocean is one of this generation's most enigmatic artists. He has not released an album since 2016, and his discography is relatively slim, having only 21 singles, two albums, and a mixtape officially released. Despite this, Frank has still managed to remain as relevant as ever. Through savvy business decisions and since his talent stands well on its own, as he has created sounds and poems that have replay value the world over. And due to clever planning, Frank guaranteed that his work would no longer have to be taxed by a label that didn't prioritize his talent.

Frank Ocean inked a 2-album deal with Def Jam in 2009, but Frank felt that the label didn't appreciate his talents or what he brought to the table. So he tested the waters, releasing a now-beloved mixtape, nostalgia, Ultra without the label's permission in 2011. A year later, he released his first album, Channel Orange, to widespread acclaim and a Grammy win. Frank had pop hits, R&B chops, and even ghostwriting credits for artists like Beyonce, Justin Bieber, John Legend, and Brandy Norwood. Despite quickly gaining connections and status in the music industry, Frank felt that Def Jam still set him on the backburner. So over the next four years, he hides himself from the public, rarely taking interviews, doing promo, or making headlines.

In 2016, he resurfaced. On his website there was a cryptic video of him slowly building a staircase. It took hours. But by the end of the video, Frank's experimental album Endless was there for fans, acting as a soundtrack to the staircase visuals. Endless was strange, lovelorn, and written with a poet's pen.


A frame from Endless, Frank Ocean building a staircase. Source: NPR

Though many didn't think much of it, Frank released Endless in order to free himself from his record deal with Def Jam, having fulfilled his two-album requirement. The next day, Frank signed with Apple Music for a whopping $20 Million, and under Apple Music, Frank released what many consider his magnum opus, the 17-track album Blonde, which somehow managed to set the bar even higher after Channel Orange, becoming Frank's first #1 Album and garnering hundreds of millions of streams by the end of 2017 alone. By subverting his deal to release work he was confident would make money, Frank bet on himself as an independent artist, and used his industry connections (Beyonce and Kendrick Lamar make unlisted appearances on Blonde) to help himself get ahead. Who knows what percentage of that $20 Million would have belonged to him had he released Blonde under Def Jam.

Since Blonde, Frank has released multiple singles, started an Apple Music radio show, started a high-end jewelry brand, and there are already rumors swirling that he will direct an A24 film sometime soon. Frank Ocean is a great example of betting on yourself and not feeling confined by the public eye, but rather building your own path forward, the right way. Whatever move he makes next, is off of his timeline, not a label's.


Written by Max Olarinde, @mobeige1 on all social media.


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