It all started with the Bar Mitzvah money. The cash went to a laptop, the laptop took him to a Kanye West internet forum, and before long, Alex Fraknoi was making waves as an up-and-coming battle rapper.
Fraknoi, better known by his emcee handle, Frak, cut his teeth freestyling in competitions hosted by Youth Speaks, a Bay Area organization dedicated to fostering creativity and intellectual curiosity among local teens. These days, while he still keeps his off-top flow sharp — on Sept. 20, he faced off with Dizaster in a Twitch-streamed King of the Dot event, which has caused quite an uproar within the battle rap community — Frak’s focus has shifted.
He no longer strives to be “the greatest rapper of all time.” Instead, he is hoping to create “a piece of art that people enjoy or can vibe to.”
B-List Celebrities, due in early October, is Frak’s latest effort. The full-length concept album marks the beginning of a new professional partnership with Bay Area hip-hop icon Zion I — who picked Frak to be the first artist on his new record label, Keep It Movin, an Empire imprint.
Back in 2018, Frak earned critical praise for Limewire ’03. The album features an ode to Golden State Warriors’ power forward, “Draymond,” and some clever bars about gentrification on “Small Talk.” But with B-List Celebrities, Frak says he aims to deliver more personal reflections along with his punchlines. The new record touches upon anxiety, unrequited love, and struggles with identity — toggling between sentimental introspection and hubristic bravado, finding confidence through humility, and still delivering plenty of witty one-liners and pop-culture references.
“Aubrey Plaza” covers the heartache of falling for a girl who couldn’t care less (“She’s mean as hell, she talks to me like she’s Regina George”) weaving in the emotional and the referential: “Howdy do, how are you? It’s your brand new song / Aubrey who? Aubrey you, you can do no wrong / Abu-dee abu-die I been blue so long / Ob-la-di ob-la-da I guess life goes on.” The whole album walks this tightrope nimbly, from ghosting in “Rick Moranis” (“Why you been ghostin? / Prolly a bit of self-care and a bit of self-loathing”), to identity in “Chamillionaire” (“Y’all still tryna secure the bag / I’m tryna secure my emotional baggage”), resulting in an album that’s earnest and fun, without ever crossing the line into downright goofy.
“In terms of my music I definitely add humor in it, but especially recently I don’t want my music to be the joke,” the emcee explains.
All artists who aim to evolve and grow their practice benefit from periodically reassessing how they approach their craft. But for Frak — a white man working in a medium created by people of color — the times have demanded that he be extra intentional.
“Battle rap and hip-hop both are art forms invented by Black people.” he says. “To be someone with white skin in an art form like that, and to be benefitting and making both money and getting fans from something that another culture created, you have to come in with respect.”
To that end, Frak says he works extra hard to recognize how structural racism affects everything around him and approaches his music as a guest in the culture. “This conversation is inflamed by the way our country is set up and the way that not only are Black people’s culture being stolen, but their lives are being stolen . . . understanding that context helps you understand why it’s such a sensitive issue and why it’s so important for white artists to come in acknowledging that and just being aware of it.”
Reflecting on his role as a creator in the midst of a global pandemic — and in a moment where the Black Lives Matter movement has prompted serious national discussions on the scourge of police brutality — Frak has been using his profile to take action. Proceeds from the first couple of singles off of B-List Celebrities will be donated to the Black Organizing Project, based in Oakland.
Frak has also teamed up with an unlikely partner in an effort to get more Americans to the polls this November.
“The CEO of LinkedIn, Reid Hoffman, is wanting to roll out content that has a political impact and gets people to the polls and I kind of got found as a rap writer,” Frak said. “We’ve been writing a bunch of political cartoons kind of strategically going at Trump and the administration.”
The cartoons, which include a rap battle between Trump and Reagan’s ghost, and showdown between Fox News and MSNBC, have already tallied millions of views and been shared on Twitter by Judd Apatow and The Lincoln Project.
“Normally I’m more of a progressive,” Frak says, “so I wouldn’t want any content on The Lincoln Project, but the goal of the project is to reach those kind of right-center people in our country and that’s who it’s supposed to persuade.”
Frak is the child of immigrants — his father is from Hungary and his mother is from Peru — with several grandparents who narrowly escaped the Holocaust. Frak takes it as a personal affront that we have a president who openly flirts with totalitarian world leaders and uses racial animus and violent nationalistic rhetoric to rally his base.
“At least three out of the four of my grandparents narrowly avoided death from the Holocaust,” he says. “That in itself is kind of inspiration for me and it’s something I try not to take for granted.”