Born a Scorpio in 1987, two-time GRAMMY winner Frank Ocean is a prolific and beloved singer, songwriter, and rapper. Yet he has zero No. 1 hits and no top 10 singles. Although he's been nominated for seven golden gramophones, only 14 of his 45 tracks charted on the Billboard Hot 100.
The California born, Louisana raised singer Is surely capable of recording mainstream-leaning pop songs if he wished to climb charts. Yet his signature ambition, intelligence and confidence has eschewed that traditional success in favor of genuine artistry. Combined with a Scorpio's creative problem-solving and inherent carnality, Frank Ocean has produced a cult-like fanbase, beginning with his critically acclaimed 2012 debut channel ORANGE and through his last single, 2020's "Dear April."
Rumors of new music — what would be his first album in over five years — have only added anticipation to Frank Ocean's Sunday headlining sets at this year's Coachella. Ahead of his performances on April 16 and April 23, GRAMMY.com honors Frank Ocean by selecting 10 of his essential songs.
"Lost" is a great place to start if you’re new to Frank Ocean’s music — and an even better place to start if you’re seeing him headline Coachella, where this tune is a surefire choice for a live rendition. You’ll learn the words.
This upbeat track from channel ORANGE offers lyrics about searching for love and adventure. EDM, soul, funk, synthesizers, horns, and a gospel choir all converge in musical matrimony to deliver one of Frank Ocean’s more radio-core choruses: "Lost, lost in the heat of it all / Girl, you know you’re lost / Lost in the thrill of it all / Miami, Amsterdam, Tokyo, Spain, lost / Los Angeles, India, lost on a train, lost."
The track earned a gold certification from the RIAA and cracked the Billboard Hot 100 chart. This track lamenting a lady who has been caught up in the world of drug trafficking is made pretty and catchy thanks to production by Malay, Pharrell and Om’mas Keith.
"Pink Matter" (2012)
Big Boi almost joined Andre 3000 on "Pink Matter," the third single from Frank Ocean’s debut studio album channel ORANGE. The historic Outkast reunion would have catapulted Ocean to an even higher echelon of legend.
Still, "Pink Matter' stands on its own, dealing in love, sexuality and spirituality. Frank's melancholy tone is abetted by an organ and an orchestra that stops playing just as abruptly as it starts. You’ll want to pay special attention to Frank Ocean’s excellent vocal delivery of the word "pleasure" from 1:05 to 1:08. Oddly but effectively, the track includes an audio clip from the 1985 film The Lost Dragon.
A somewhat overlooked track from channel ORANGE, the rock 'n' roll-leaning "Monks" mostly operates uptempo before slowing down around the 2 minute mark.
Another early example of Frank's nuanced lyricism, "Monks" unpacks the duality of freedom and oppression as he chooses between two young women. The first is an African girl with an English accent who likes "to f— boys in bands," watch Westerns, and show Frank her passport. The second is a young at heart Indian girl who sleeps above the temple, found a boyfriend, and is planning a runaway. Frank chooses the latter love interest.
"Thinkin Bout You" (2012)
"Thinkin Bout You" debuted in 2011 on now-defunct Los Angeles collective Odd Future’s Tumblr as a free download, and was later released as the lead single for channel ORANGE. Eventually, the track cracked the top 40 on the Billboard Hot 100.
A good old-fashioned love song, "Thinkin Bout You" is a downtempo, emotive ballad where Frank — showing off his now well-known falsetto — pines for a shot at eternity with the one he cares about the most.
"Thinkin Bout You" was originally a demo written for singer/songwriter Bridget Kelly. She didn’t reject it — Frank Ocean took it back for himself when his demo of the song blew up.
Far from your traditional, radio-friendly hit, "Pyramids" is as close to EDM as you will find in Frank Ocean’s catalog. Its initial chords are moody and mysterious; the drums are played backwards to help the listener comprehend Frank's lyrics about events set in ancient Egypt. Come the second half, autotune on several lyrics and some horns come in.
He takes sound in a couple of different directions throughout the 10 minute track, ultimately settling into R&B. "Pyramids" serves as a sonic microcosm for what Frank Ocean is capable of — and John Mayer adds a guitar riff at the song's end for extra flair.
Widely regarded as one of Frank Ocean’s all-time greatest works, "Nights" appears on his sophomore album, Blonde. Its chief lyric, "Wanna see Nirvana / Don’t wanna die yet," has assuredly been used as plenty of Instagram captions, though Frank is largely absent from social media. At just over 5 minutes, the two-part track combines aspects of R&B, hip-hop, and electronic music with reversed and manipulated vocal samples to create a sparse mood and texture.
Om’mas Keith assisted Frank Ocean in producing the first half "Nights," while German electronic musician and producer Sebastian contributed dynamic and memorable production in its back end. The mix puts Frank Ocean’s vocals at the front while the instrumental’s volume is slightly lower. Most notable is the song's transition into an energetic and dynamic second instrumental, driven by a bassline, skittering hi-hats, and jazzy chords.
"Pretty Sweet" (2016)
The studio magic Pharrell practiced to make "Monks" repeats itself on "Pretty Sweet," a raucous ode to friendship and death. You’ve never heard Frank Ocean this locked in with Pharrell — he delivers pained and anguished vocals in fluid flows, while the drums in the second half of the track are rapidly fired off in a rare display of intense percussion work. A children’s choir is put front and center in the song’s waning moments.
Another prime candidate for a live rendition during his Coachella performance, "Pretty Sweet" proves Frank Ocean and Pharrell’s penchant for rock-inspired sound first heard on "Monks" was no fluke nor a college try.
GRAMMY-winning producer Malay Ho and GRAMMY-winning Swedish songwriter and producer Ludwig Göransson assisted Frank Ocean in crafting this guitar-driven indie rock ballad. A standout track from Blonde, this song marries a simple yet beautiful melody to introspective lyrics about lost love and moving on.
Minimalistic in sound, "Ivy" features reversed guitar riffs and background vocal harmonies. Frank Ocean’s vocal conveys a bittersweetness that's often difficult to pull off. The song’s outro has Frank Ocean letting out Prince-like vocals, screaming and singing simultaneously.
"Seigfried" is a masterpiece and the glue in the middle of a three-track run on Blonde that includes "White Ferrari" (you can hear Kanye West record the word "love") and "Godspeed." All three are worth writing about, yet "Seigfried" is a must-listen for anybody new to Frank Ocean’s music but weary of another sad love song. Here, the singer wonders if he should just settle down with two kids and a swimming pool.
Frank Ocean’s vocal strains itself with emotion over the truly captivating psychedelic sound. There are soaring strings, dreamy filters on the guitar riffs, reversed vocal samples. Once the strings swell at 2:50, the track reaches an emotional, cinematic peak.
"Dear April (Side A - Acoustic)" (2020)
Another gorgeous ballad, "Dear April (Side A - Acoustic)", released April 3, 2020, features contributions from producer and musician Daniel Aged. Three years later, it remains a vital entry point for those looking to familiarize themselves with the artist’s repertoire. Frank Ocean’s vocals shine front and center here. A listener has no choice but to hone in on the singer’s voice as he begins to share a situation between himself and his former lover April.
There’s a higher pitched guitar playing quietly between Frank’s verses. The lower pitched guitar strums higher in the mix. Slow and contemplative, there’s little fanfare to distract from Frank Ocean’s captivating vocal take, save for a minimalistic guitar melody and atmospheric synths.
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