On Nate Dogg and the key to Frank Ocean’s mainstream success.
“Smoke weed every day” – Nate Dogg, from Snopp Dogg and Dr. Dre’s 2001 classic “The Next Episode.”
“Human beings in a mob
What’s a mob to a king? What’s a king to a God?
What’s a God to a non-believer who don’t believe in anything?
Will he make it out alive? Alright, alright, no church in the wild” – Frank Ocean, from Jay-Z and Kanye West’s 2011 single “No Church in the Wild”
Frank Ocean is the Nate Dogg of 21st century urban culture. This is neither a knock at the Odd Future aligned vocalist or the G-Funk legend, but more a statement on the intriguing rise of beta male culture into pop culture renown, and furthermore, questioning its staying power as a dominant force in mainstream pop. In basing a career on singing incredible hooks rather than basing a career around being a bankable top-tier album artist, Ocean’s continued success may already have a necesssary parallel.
Nate was a timeless mirror for his era. It’s an easily arguable notion that finesse is more impacting than braggadocio. Thus, while we fondly remember moments of so many left coast gangsta rappers, Compton’s most wanted crooner, is legendary. Ocean is the smooth singing poster child for hip-hop’s current pop excellence. He’s an intentionally awkward and highly introspective creator. If you read the tenth anniversary edition of Wax Poetics Magazine, he goes as far as to state the he “dreamed as a child of being a songwriter.” Most kids want the spotlight’s bombast, but Frank opted to explore the depth of shadows. Standing in the background and aiding some of the dominant statements of urban culture’s redefining era? Likely Ocean’s goal all along.
The road to sustainability for those who enter the world of mainstream pop is a strange journey. If an auteur valuing intellectual energy as creative currency more than music as a commercial tool based in dollars and cents, it’s a weird paradigm. As a star,Frank Ocean is incongruous to his surroundings. Not unlike fellow hipster era performer M.I.A, pop extremists tend to be one hit wonders before deciding whether assimilation to typical standards is the next best move. 2012 expects a Frank Ocean debut album. His initial mixtape offering, Nostalgia, Ultra is a rough hewn creation just shy of being tremendous. The notion of a songwriter who’s terribly shy about being in the limelight is a key component of the release. He’s exploring his gifts in a public realm, analogous to a baby bird learning how to fly. Or maybe he’s just awkward and doesn’t want to fly at all. Ocean in the pop realm will always be a difficult read and provide an intriguing sound. Timeless music typically does not have a take-it-or-leave-it appeal. He’s both a marketing gift and a curse – easy to sell but likely unwilling to buy himself. Thankfully, new times can be solved with old solutions.
It is my closely held opinion that Ocean’s best “mainstream” work to date was on Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch the Thone. As the hook man for “No Church in the Wild” and “Made in America,” he’s perfect. Ocean’s better representing an ideal than representing himself. There’s less stress and pressure in simply breathing life into concepts rather than bearing the weight of your own beliefs and thoughts on one’s own release. In letting Jigga and Yeezy do the heavy work, Frank can fill in the empty spaces and create an extremely cohesive song.
Grammy nominations for “Regulate,” “Area Codes,” “The Next Episode” and “Shake That” prove that Nate Dogg’s greatest success as a performer came as a vocalist singing hooks on material other than his own. As an album artist he had success, but it’s clear that what he represented meant far more to people than the man himself. Frank Ocean’s in roughly the same situation. The poster child for the beta male generation, what he represents is an ideal far greater to people than the man himself. In realizing this, Ocean’s ability to excel as a mainstream pop performer would appear to be an absolute certainty.
To paraphrase a line from Watch the Throne, “Sweet baby Jesus, Frank Ocean’s gonna make it in America.”