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.