Frank Ocean sues Om’Mas Keith over 'Blonde' writing credits

Frank Ocean Om’Mas Keith

SPIN reports today that Frank Ocean is taking longtime collaborator Om’Mas Keith to court over the co-writing credits to 11 songs from Ocean's 2016 album Blonde. Keith claims to have co-written those 11 tracks, but Ocean and his lawyers disagree.

The short of the case is that Keith was hired in March of 2014 to produce master recordings of the album, a step in the recording process that takes place long after the writing and recording has occurred. A flat fee was to be paid to cover the scope of work. 

The suit lists 11 defendants, but only Keith is named. The rest appear to be unknown entities at Analog Genius Corporation, of which Keith is the owner. These entities twice refused to acknowledge Ocean's claim that they have no writing credits on the song. Ocean is asking the courts to remove Keith and Analog Genius from ASCAP records for these songs and is asking the defendants to pay lawyer's fees. No further claims have been made.

Three potentially unheard songs are listed in the complaint, "Dharma" and "Carreras for Peace." Searches on both ASCAP and BMI's repertory searches yielded zero results. The record states that these are working titles. It's undetermined if these tracks were finalized and renamed for the record.

From Andy Cush at SPIN:

The suit, filed Tuesday in the U.S. district court for California’s central district, names Ocean as plaintiff and Keith, Keith’s Analog Genius Corporation, and 10 unnamed parties as defendants. It alleges that Ocean and Keith entered into a agreement that Keith’s contributions to Blonde would be handled similarly to his contributions to Channel Orange, for which he was paid a flat fee. However, according to the lawsuit, when Ocean’s attorney’s asked Keith to sign a document which formally established this fee structure and “acknowledged that Defendants did not write any of the compositions that were embodied in the master recordings,” Keith declined.

The lawsuit states that Keith claimed credit with ASCAP for 11 Blonde songs, and that he did not actually co-write any of them. The songs are “Be Yourself,” “Futura Free,” “Godspeed,” “Ivy,” “Nights,” “Nikes,” “Pink + White,” “Pretty Sweet,” “Skyline To,” “Solo,” and “White Ferrari.” “All of the Compositions and the ASCAP Compositions were written well before Defendants, or any of them, rendered any services whatsoever in connection with any of the masters,” it reads in part. “Defendants did not contribute any lyrics, melodies, or music that would give rise to any claim of authorship by Defendants in the Compositions or the ASCAP Compositions.”

Through the suit, Ocean is seeking to have Keith’s name (and, presumably, his attendant percentage of royalties) removed from the ASCAP and copyright registrations of each song, as well as an injunction barring Keith and his co-defendants from publicly claiming that they are co-writers of Ocean’s music or attempting to license it. He is also seeking attorney’s fees to cover the cost of the suit.

UPDATE 2/22: Pitchfork has written a follow-up to the initial story, quoting representatives in similar cases.

But the lack of a written deal could cause complications. “The pattern of contractual dealings between the parties seems messy, and may boil down to a ‘he said/he said’ situation,” says Judy Endejan, who successfully defended Sir Mix-A-Lot against a songwriter who claimed to deserve “Baby Got Back” royalties. “The court will have to look to all of the facts surrounding their relationship to figure out what these parties intended.”

Evidence documenting the songwriting process, then, could prove crucial. “The state of play at the time that Keith entered the picture is important,” says James Sammataro, who’s currently suing Universal Music Group on behalf of Enrique Iglesias. “If the lyrics and melody were already completed, this will be a difficult—near impossible—hurdle to overcome.”

Ocean has maintained a level of secrecy that extends to even his collaborators. Wolfgang Tillmans, the photographer and techno producer who shot Blonde’s cover image, said he didn’t know his own unreleased track would open and close Endless, the visual album that preceded Blonde, until Ocean released it. Ocean’s keyboardist, Buddy Ross, who’s credited in the complaint as the songwriter for “Be Yourself,” told me he’d almost forgotten giving Ocean the music for that song—that is, until Ross heard it on the released album. Getting the songwriting credit for “Be Yourself” was a months-long process that took place after the fact and only ended when Ocean himself stepped in to resolve the matter amicably, Ross’s manager at the time, Ryan Crase, tells me. “Negotiating credits for Buddy started out with the typical lawyer negotiations,” Crase says. “But when that process became impossible, an agreement was reached through a simple conversation between Buddy and Frank.”

Read the full complaint below.