A History of Video Games In Frank Ocean’s Career
In a career filled with sinuous decisions and a knack for deconstructing social barriers, there’s been an innocent variable throughout Frank Ocean’s music, his love for video games. From galactic backdrops on “Saturday Night Live” to samples in his recorded output, video games have become a rare staple in a career that’s otherwise unpredictable.
This post was originally published on frankocean365.
It has been edited, expanded, and reformatted here with permission from the author.
Frank’s love for video games dates back to the days of the SEGA Dreamcast, playing games in the Street Fighter series. As a fan of the title, Frank paid homage in the bio of his short-lived Twitter account with the term “Yoga Flame,” which is a special attack used by the character Dhalsim in Street Fighter II.
Despite leaving Twitter in 2013, Frank has left his Tumblr mostly intact. Browsing the blog’s archive during its more active months, you’ll find that it is filled with pictures of Street Fighter, retro PlayStation logos, PAC-MAN, and Nintendo titles.
His interest for video games have gone far beyond the ephemeral nature of social media, however, bleeding into his music works as well. It started with his first project, a mixtape called nostalgia, ULTRA.
In 2012, Frank’s told the BBC that nostalgia, ULTRA was a “labor of love,” explaining:
“It was like difficult to make. Not like writing the songs [or] arranging the songs. That had a level of difficulty, too. But just piecing together all the levels to do it at the level, the quality of records I wanted to make... But, it was a process I appreciate so much."
Note how Frank likens the process of making the record to progressing through levels in a video game. Digging into the record itself, you’ll find how he stitches the project together using samples from classic video games as well as cassette player sounds to induce nostalgia. These sounds reflect a period of time in Frank’s life that was filled with discovery and wonder.
From the sun orange M3 E30 hugging the lush greenery on the cover of the mixtape to a vibrant interpretation of Coldplay’s “Strawberry Swing,” Frank creates an atmosphere which oozes the sentimentality of his boyhood.
In an interview with Complex in 2011, Frank called the E30 his dream car:
“When I did the artwork after we mastered it, I was feeling the same thing. That’s my dream car. It’s been my dream car for a minute. That E30 M3. That’s been my shit. I was the kid who had a bunch of car posters and girls in bikinis, all over my wall in middle school.”
The project starts off with the track “Street Fighter,” the first of several 1990s video games references that double as track titles throughout. In this track, Frank plays a cassette of Coldplay’s Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends. Curiously enough, this record was only released on tape in Indonesia, which makes it unlikely that Frank would have listened to this album via that physical format. Frank cycles through several tracks, landing on “Strawberry Swing,” the first full track on this mixtape.
The 5th track, titled “Bitches Talkin' (Metal Gear Solid),” is the first of several interludes, also references a series of games popular throughout the 90s. Metal Gear, the first in this series was released in 1987, the year that Frank was born. Metal Gear Solid would be released in 1998 for PlayStation and PC, when Frank was 11—a prime age for all of titles referenced on Nostalgia, ULTRA.
Track 8 “Goldeneye” references the 1997 James Bond title released for the Nintendo 64. The track is similar to the first, but with the Coldplay cassette tape being changed out for Straight No Chaser (2009) by Mr. Hudson.
The 13th track, “Soul Calibur,” references Soulcalibur, a game released in 1995 by Namco for arcades and later ported to the SEGA Dreamcast for home entertainment.
In a June 2011 Tumblr Q&A, Frank was asked, “What's your favourite Video Game system?” His answer falls right in line with the titles used as track names on his mixtape:
“don’t play much anymore. but i used to spend a lot of time on n64 and dreamcast.”
The use of video games from the mid-to-late 90s was an intentional part of the nostalgic factor this artist’s debut was intended to convey.
On July 28th, 2011, betwen nostalgia, ULTRA and Channel Orange, Frank released several singles, including his breakout hit “Thinkin Bout You.” The single artwork for the track features a man sitting at an arcade race car game. An outtake from the photo session can be seen at the topic of this article.
The next project, although grander in scale and thematic content, shared the format of the first. On “Start,” the first track of 2012’s channel ORANGE, Frank begins the album off in a smokey atmosphere as an original PlayStation startup sound smoothly chimes in. Just as as he did with nostalgia, ULTRA, he references Street Fighter again, this time sampling sounds from the game’s character selection menu. Where cassettes would break up Nostalgia, ULTRA into sections, radio would serve as the nostalgic medium for the interludes on his major label debut.
In July 2012, Frank was photographed by famed photographer Terry Richardson. In the shoot, he wore his trademark striped headband and a vintage Street Fighter II t-shirt.
Later that year, on September 15th, Frank Ocean made his Saturday Night Live debut in an episode hosted by Seth MacFarlane. Appearing in front of a backdrop of vintage arcade games, Ocean performed “Thinkin Bout You” and “Pyramids,” accompanied by John Mayer on guitar.
During a guitar solo in the bridge of “Pyramids,” Frank wandered from center-stage to play with one of the machines, letting Mayer shine.
Some of the games present were Galaga and Street Fighter. The former of which Frank mentioned on the Odd Future collective’s song “Oldie”:
“get me a Persian rug where the center looks like Galaga
2016’s Blonde is an album about burgeoning freedom and self-discovery; a forest-full of narratives tracking Frank’s journey from adolescence into adulthood. Frank steers away from Hollywood-like stories as he did with Channel Orange tracks like “Lost,” “Monks,” and “Pyramids” instead choosing to pour even more personal experiences into the project.
This artistic choice resulted in considerably less cultural references to movies, video games, and entertainment than previous projects. Those that can be found are considerably more oblique. The most interesting is in the name of track 15, “Siegfried.”
Siegfried, or Sigurd, is a legendary hero of Germanic mythology, who killed a dragon and was later murdered. Interestingly enough, Frank debuted this track in the summer of 2013 at a concert in Munich. Through fan-made video recordings of the performance, the world came to be know this song initially as ‘Brave.’ Four years later, it appeared on Blonde, noticeably stripped of the soulful guitar and thumping drums present in the live version.
Frank spent more time in Germany in 2015. Then visiting Berghain and hanging out with composer Wolfgang Tillmans, the photographer of the album’s cover art and artist behind “Device Control,” the intro and outro track on Endless.
Despite these germanic ties, it also may be that “Seigfried” is yet another homage to the Soulcalibur series. Appearing in the series’ first game, Soul Edge, Siegfried becomes a central character. This could be a coincidence.
As the era of his Beats1 blonded Radio program came and initially dissipated in late 2017, a monumental shift in Frank’s association with video games would arise. Rather than referencing video games in his work, Frank’s music, and a wide selection of song he enjoys, was included as an in-game radio station on Grand Theft Auto Online as an update. In the Los Santos universe, Frank’s show is titled “blonded Los Santos 97.8 FM” and features tracks from numerous artists including Burial, Aphex Twin, and Jay-Z.
Frank teased the GTA update in an image posted on his Tumblr profile the day prior. The radio station features “Crack Rock,” “Chanel,” “Provider,” “Ivy,” “Nights,” and “Pretty Sweet.”
Frank’s use of video game references has visibly dissipated since his debut. Over the last 8 years, what references there have been have become increasingly oblique. Endless had numerous references to nostalgic totems of childhood, but none referencing the gaming consoles he was clearly so fond of as a child.