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Loud Minded: Neo-soul, ULTRA

Music columnist William Schmitt on Frank Ocean's surprising ascent to stardom

By William Schmitt | March 7, 2013

Tags: Music

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It has been more than a decade since the heyday of Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC — an era of perfectly coiffed, impeccably presented pop stars composed in some studio for public enjoyment.

Even recently, Onika Maraj transformed from ordinary New York rapper to the hyperactive, bipolar entertainer with technicolored weave and fructose vocals now known as Nicki Minaj. Somewhere in between, T-Pain took front stage with his patented brand of singing some sweet nothings about women, wine and weed into a computer only to have it spat back out over a bastardized Jazze Pha beat with a feature from a Ludacris wanna-be.

With so much precedent from processing music like we're eating McNuggets, it’s both astonishing and refreshing that Frank Ocean has become so influential. Granted, he wrote songs for the likes of Beyoncé and John Legend and made a name for himself with his work with Kanye West on Watch the Throne, but he came up to fame with a group of radical teenage hip-hopping maniac skate punks. I don’t know exactly how the New Orleans native managed to connect with Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, but the neo-soul singer has meshed well with the members of the L.A.-based rap collective.

After making his imprint through songwriting, he released the mixtape Nostalgia, ULTRA," which includes hits like “Novacane” and “Swim Good." I smile thinking about this now – he released his first record after I had decided to give John Legend and D’Angelo repeated listens, and then he moved back in time to giants like Sam Cooke, Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye. Suddenly there was a new face on the scene, and, as his buzz built, his rep got taller.

Now, I can walk into The Shack on a weeknight and hear a student’s rendition of “Thinking Bout You." Even for our generation, Ocean has become famous incredibly quickly. Much of his fame stems directly from his most recent album, the Grammy-winning Channel ORANGE. This album got a boost from a letter Ocean posted on Tumblr announcing his bisexuality. This wouldn’t be exceptionally fascinating if it weren't for his musical context; the hip-hop scene has long dealt with an Achilles heel of homophobia.

Oh, the album itself? Phenomenal. I don’t see the Grammys as particularly fair or representative of anything significant, but I’m glad he won. Not because he further exposed Chris Brown as an oblivious knucklehead but because it was a rare case of credit going precisely where credit is due.

Notable tracks include “Super Rich Kids," which features Earl Sweatshirt, a fellow member of OFWGKTA and an absolute monster of a rapper. Immediately after this comes “Pilot Jones," one of the best instances of song structure on the album. Ocean is becoming famous for his voice, his personality and his penchant for musical exploration in terms of composition and adventures in chordal quality.

I’m sure he’ll release more music in the near future and ride his wave to Hawaii before heading back to L.A. and eventually to a much cleaner version of the New Orleans he probably remembers. He gives fascinating interviews and is entertaining on Twitter. I found him at the perfect time for my musical tastes, and though you may not be in the same headspace I was when I first gave him a listen, I bet you’ll like him.

Thanks for reading.

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