Ocean's co-writer and producer talks about their creative chemistry.
Frank Ocean's forthcoming debut album Channel Orange (due out July 17) was highly anticipated even before Frank Ocean revealed the ‘net-shaking news about his sexuality this week. He began crafting the follow-up to his acclaimed mixtape nostalgia, ULTRA last February working alongside co-writer and producer Malay.
Ocean’s creative relationship with Malay—who’s worked with John Legend, Jamie Foxx, and Big Boi in the past—goes back a few years. When they were coming up in the business, Ocean and Malay used to work together writing demos for other artists.
With the release of Channel Orange just days away, Malay took some time out of the studio—where he's been working on cuts for new Motown songstress Stacy Barthe’s debut and Legend’s next set—to talk about how Kanye West, Andre 3000, and John Mayer assisted on Orange, why Ocean (born Christopher Breaux) legally changed his name, and about Frank’s Tuesday revelation.
Interview by Brad Wete (@BradWete)
Talk about Frank’s work ethic in the studio.
He’s the type of artist that’s very focused and he knows exactly what he’s going for. I’m the type of producer where I’m kind of a more old-school mentality of where I just want to be behind the scenes and just kind of help artists develop their own sounds. Nowadays a lot of producers have their own signature sound and no matter who they work with it all has that certain flavor. I’m kind of the opposite. I almost want to be transparent, kind of be far under the radar. So working with Frank it was that exact situation.
I was like, 'Why did you change your name?' And he said, 'I just can’t picture my name "Lonny Breaux" on the cover of a magazine whereas I can picture "Frank Ocean."'
How far do you go back with Frank?
I met him before the whole Frank Ocean thing years back. At the time both of us were kind of writing little one-offs here and there. We did some Mario and John Legend records—just little placements here and there. I met him when I was in Atlanta.
So you knew him when he was Christopher Breaux?
"Lonny." That’s what we called him. He went by "Lonny." Then when I moved to L.A., we reconnected through our publisher. We had the same publishing company.
What were initial album discussions?
To tell you the truth, man, the reason why this thing was so beautiful was because when we started it never was a discussion. Nostalgia was done. I asked him, “What are you doing with this music?” He was like, “I don’t know. For a while my label didn’t really have any input on this thing.” And at that point I’m kind of out of touch a little bit, maybe on purpose, with some of the things that were going on.
So I hadn’t at that point even heard of Odd Future or anything like that So he hipped me to everything that he was doing with his crew and showed me Tyler and all of their music. So that’s when we kind of just started hanging out and writing. No purpose. Just both of us agreeing to “Hey, we’re both kind of on the same page creatively. Let’s just kind of fuck around.” And then he put out Nostalgia probably within a month of us starting working and within probably two to three months—not like every single day, but just real loosely—we pretty much wrote the whole record. We had the basis of what became Channel Orange.
That’s around February 2011?
Yeah, Nostalgia, ULTRA dropped in February. At that point he had changed his name to Frank Ocean and it really felt like he was ready to get out there. Even to the point where I was like, "Why did you change your name?" And he said, "I just can’t picture my name 'Lonny Breaux' on the cover of a magazine whereas I can picture "Frank Ocean."'
I love that type of thing. It’s beyond just a belief of yourself. It’s just kind of like this is what I’m doing and, you know, trying to execute. So when we were working it was really just writing. Like, I had a couple ideas track-wise that he was writing to. Sometimes he’d come in and we’d write from scratch and I’d pull up the keyboard and a guitar and start plucking around and next thing you know, we’ve got some cool ideas floating around and maybe it starts turning into a song.
The cool thing is that it’s not like we made a bunch of extra stuff. We didn’t write 50 songs and narrow it down. We got this collection of songs. He did a couple of songs that he wrote with Pharrell [Williams]. There were a couple songs he had from previous situations, but he really felt were a part of this. So we took those and we worked them in and integrated them into the project. So that’s kind of how the whole process went.
This is how diligent this dude is as far as his work ethic: Once we said, "OK, we have the body of work as far as the writing goes,” he put those songs in order as they are now over a year ago. And then he recorded them. He went in and did the vocals for like nine months, like intense recording and being a perfectionist. The dude really takes it super-seriously.
But he recorded them in order of how they are on the record and then when we got back together once the vocals were completed. On the production end we did the same thing. We went back in a reworked. We touched up production. Went into the studio and I brought in some live production on a couple songs that we went and cut—some strings and stuff. But we did it all in order of the record, like how it is now.
As [Frank’s] name was blowing up he was getting calls to work with everybody. Pharrell is one of his personal favorite idols of all time. Frank had the opportunity to go in and make songs and they came out great. So we just kind of worked them in sonically for the record and it came out great.
Which one is Pharrell on, as a writer?
How did you make the sound so cohesive?
We actually ended up mixing the album ourselves. I didn’t plan on doing that. A lot of my friends in the business are some of the top mix guys and I was excited to bring this project to them, but the way it worked out, we had just spent so much time and it was almost like our art project. When you listen to it you can tell there’s a lot of little intricacies as far as the little skits and interludes and things like that.
There was sort of an underline in that, not necessarily even a storyline, but there was some kind of theme that sort of kept a focal point for us as we were finishing the record. So sonically, it just made sense for us to finish the record ourselves as far as being in the mix process. We really went all the way with it.
He’s the true storyteller. I don’t think anyone during any given point during the creative process knew what was happening, because the thing that’s so brilliant about what Frank does is, like on 'Forrest Gump,' when he’s singing maybe from a female perspective or whatever, it’s a story, it’s a world that he created.
As you guys were writing together, were there ever any discussions over the use of genders in the songs? On "Forrest Gump" he sings to a guy. And this week he blogged about his first love being a man. Did you know his music would reflect that?
First, I just want to say that I don’t want to speak about anything involving his sexuality preferences or that aspect of it, just because in this process we’ve become very close on a friendship level. I believe the reason I got involved so early and wanted to stick with it is a belief in his artistry. I feel like he’s the new hybrid of what an MC used to be in the ‘80s or ‘90s. He’s the true storyteller.
I don’t think anyone during any given point during the creative process knew what was happening, because the thing that’s so brilliant about what Frank does is, like on “Forrest Gump,” when he’s singing maybe from a female perspective or whatever, it’s a story, it’s a world that he created.
It’s not necessarily his personal—like something that he’s experiencing. Maybe it is and it’s a metaphor the way he did it, but I’m just saying once you heard the record you could tell he’s so good at creating these entire worlds from some of the songs. That being said, I don’t think at any point anyone has ever questioned where his intentions were and I think that’s why his songs connect so well.
What did you think, as a businessman, Frank’s announcement will do with his album coming out in two weeks?
Honestly, I’m just going to let it do what it does. Like I said, I really don’t want to kind of harp on the issue or over-analyze anything. It is what it is. At the end of the day his artistry is super real. I think it will do what it’s meant to do.
What songs are you most excited for people to hear?
To tell the truth, Pink Floyd and those types of artists were my inspiration to even get involved in music in the first place. Through the years, you always look back. Even Marvin Gaye records, where they had these conceptual records that were more of a whole body of work and I was always like “Man, I wish somebody could do something like that.” So to me, I’m most proud of the entire thing, because it is a body of work.
What other albums inspired Channel Orange? Would Frank bring up other classic songs as references?
Definitely. At many points, Sly and the Family Stone, Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix, all kind of stuff like that. Listening to our heroes and more reference points, or sometimes just to create a mood. It’s like “Hey, let’s listen to a couple of these Stevie songs and vibe out and see what we come up with.” It may not sound anything like the Stevie song, but just creatively be inspired.
John Mayer is on “Pyramids” and “White”?
Yeah. The version of “White” that’s on the album is more of an interlude. If you’re familiar with the song from the Odd Future record, it ends on the instrumental thing. So we basically took that, we went into the studio with some live musicians and tracked this super-vibey thing. We just played John a bunch of records from the album and saw what inspired him to want to get involved and we got him to kind of vibe out on a couple things. Once we made the final cuts and final edits and everything, those are the things that help the album elevate, those last little touches from people like John.
Who else came through?
I think it was already public that he had met with Kanye [West] and everyone kind of expected maybe that collaboration just based on his contributions to Watch the Throne. I think the contributions from Kanye’s side became more of a mentorship situation where it’s like, “This record is amazing. It’s incredible. Let me help you out in other ways. Let me connect you with my visual people” and just having that cosign and that support.
How did "Pink Matter" with Andre 3000 come about?
It was just a simple thing. There came a point when we knew we were getting close to wrapping the record. Frank was kind of narrowing down who he wanted features from. We knew we didn’t want to make it a record full of a whole bunch of big name collaborators just for the sake of having them. We were just really trying to decide who we could bring to this project that’s going to elevate the overall project.
That record’s an incredible song and it’s a lot of people’s favorite record when they’ve heard the album. And with a name like that you’d think it’d be a single type song or something. But if you listen to it it’s probably the opposite of that. It’s that record that’s everybody’s favorite song on the album but it’s not the single. That’s showing where Frank really is at. He’s strictly doing it for the art. It’s not about, “Hey, this is going to help sales.”
The contributions from Kanye’s side became more of a mentorship situation where it’s like, 'This record is amazing. It’s incredible. Let me help you out in other ways. Let me connect you with my visual people.'
What has it been like on this ride with Frank?
It’s been great. We were somewhat oblivious to how quickly everything happened, because as things were growing from Nostalgia to all these other things, we were super involved in getting this record done. It was almost like as we are grinding in the studio, his name is continuing to get bigger and bigger. And I’ve become more involved and I’m actually going to be going on the road with him for the tour coming up.
So I’m going to be the musical director for the show. To have the opportunity to work on some great things and be around some cool people is amazing. Once in a while you hear about situations where an artist and a producer can come together and create something unique. And I think it’s something that me and him have been searching for and I’m just grateful for the opportunity to be doing what we want to do and for people to be actually excited to hear it.
What’s the Channel Orange tour going to be like? I saw him and the band at Coachella, but his last tour was simpler, with a DJ on the computer and a screen backing him.
What I can tell is that it’s a huge step up from anything you’ve seen from him before. I think from the production side, sonically, I’d just tell everyone to get there because it’s going to be fun.