“For me, the genesis of that name change came from me trying to make a project without my label knowing about it. It was born from a need.”
That was the explanation Frank Ocean gave in a 2019 Gayletter interview when asked how he formed his stage name. It was a very symbolic period as he was finishing up a self-released debut Def Jam was utterly unaware of. Despite receiving songwriting credits from multiple A-list artists, Ocean was inadequately aided early on while being signed to Def Jam.
Frank’s placement on the bottom of the label roster motivated him to jumpstart his own career. In fact, the label didn’t back the project until after they saw the massive response from newfound fans. The debut mixtape nostalgia, ULTRA not only gained Frank the support he was missing from his label, but he created a cult following that would last for almost a decade.
The other half of his persona’s name draws inspiration from the character Danny Ocean in the “Ocean’s” cult movie series. Danny was infamously known for pulling off extravagant heists across the world and getting away without a trace; every new chapter in the series resulted in a more elaborate heist presented. What was so enticing about the character’s role is his precise attention to detail when laying out plans. His foes would hold a false sense of an upper hand until it was time to commence the getaway. So if anything, Frank lived up to his character once he performed music’s most infamous finesse job: Endless and Blonde.
The story began with a cryptic post on his Tumblr page in April 2015: “I got two versions. I got twooo versions.” This caused an immense amount of excitement from fans already waiting 3 years for an update on new music. Fresh off a successful rollout with his first studio album channel.ORANGE and a Grammy win, he vanished from the spotlight. Instantly, it led followers to believe that a double album was soon on the way. Another concrete update wouldn’t emerge until over a year later until the “White Ferrari” singer posted a mysterious live stream.
Music enthusiasts globally tuned in and pondered on the symbolism behind the mysterious staircase. Unexpectedly, the livestream would begin to play snippets of new music and led to the release of his Endless visual album on August 19th. The visuals depicted Frank building and walking up a staircase into apparent nothingness. What listeners didn’t realize was that the staircase would hold more symbolic meaning than they perceived. The details that make up the rest of this story would later become the stuff of legend.
The Big Payback.
Before fans could get a chance to digest the project, Frank announced a new magazine coming and dropped a brand new album. On August 20th, his last masterpiece Blonde was released as a streaming exclusive under not Def Jam, but his own independent label Blonded. That was because it was another album that the label had no idea about until its release.
Following his debut album, Def Jam gave Ocean a $2 Million advance to record the third and final project of his contract. He paid back his advance prior to releasing any more music in order to maintain control of additional recordings. Once Def Jam released Endless, Frank Ocean was completely free from the legal obligations of his contract. With Blonde, Frank Ocean brought home one of the biggest upfront payouts for an indie album that we’ve ever seen. It’s rumored that music powerhouse UMG paid Frank Ocean over 8 figures before leaving the roster. Additionally, the singer received a reported $20 Million payout for Apple to exclusively stream his album. Forbes also reported that Ocean made $1 Million in the first-week release alone.
His actions angered various music executives and quickly led to the banning of streaming exclusives for label artists. While it seems like an understandable response, it’s the exact reason why Frank finessed the label: artist liberation. What makes this story so infamous was that it was the first time we saw an industry giant face a loss at the hands of the artist.
The music industry is no stranger to chewing up rising talent and spitting them out before their careers can blossom. For decades, artists have expressed their discomfort for working in an industry never designated to protect them. Frank wasn’t a stranger to this given his history with Def Jam over his seven-year tenure. If he never found his own way to stardom, he would’ve just become another industry “what-if” story.
He understood how big of a machine he was going up against and still prevailed against all odds. The finesse was everything that the Danny Ocean movie character embodied. There’s a quote from Danny that effortlessly explains his and Frank’s philosophies behind their getaways from Ocean’s Eleven.
“… The house always wins. Play long enough, you never change the stakes, the house takes you. Unless, when that perfect hand comes along, you bet big, and then you take the house.”
Blonde is the perfect hand while Endless is the bluff that Frank was selling the label until it was time to collect. The visual album’s pointless staircase turned out to be smoke and mirrors deterring attention for as long as needed. Theoretically, it symbolized Frank’s contract exit going into the next stage of his career in picture-perfect form. As the two albums hit their four-year anniversaries, they represent a proud rare moment of an artist getting to leave on their own terms. Where else do you see someone coming away with tens of millions of dollars in a clean getaway? It only happens in the movies.