When the Grammy nominations were announced on Dec. 5, it read like a roll call of 2012 radio all-stars: fun., Mumford & Sons, Kelly Clarkson, Jay-Z. There was one outlier, though: Frank Ocean.
An artist without a single Hot 100 hit or a sold-out stadium tour or a basketball arena to call his own, Ocean is up for six awards, including Album of the Year for his transcendent debut, Channel Orange. It topped dozens of year-end critics’ lists (including this magazine’s) and was only recently certified gold, let alone platinum. So how did this 25-year-old soul man end up at the center of music’s biggest night?
Part of it has to do with the shifting nature of the Grammys themselves. Gone are the days when graying boomers like Herbie Hancock and Steely Dan trumped younger, edgier stars for major awards. Now is the era of Arcade Fire (who won Album of the Year in 2011), Bon Iver (who snagged Best New Artist last year), and a willingness to acknowledge the rapid growth in dance music and hip-hop. That’s not to say that the elderly still can’t dominate—Tony Bennett did take home two prizes last year—but the potential for surprises seems greater than ever before. And Ocean, in his own way, skews both old and new: His Tumblr obsession and knack for pastiche anchor him squarely in the now, but his creamy vocals and ambitious album narratives recall greats like Stevie Wonder and Donny Hathaway.
Plus, the Grammys always love a good story, and Ocean’s is killer: Raised in New Orleans as Christopher Breaux and known to his friends as Lonny, he was displaced after Hurricane Katrina and landed in Los Angeles, where he signed a publishing deal that swiftly found him writing songs for the likes of Beyoncé and John Legend. His work so impressed producer Christopher “Tricky” Stewart, the man behind smashes like Rihanna’s “Umbrella” and Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies,” that Stewart signed him to Island Def Jam (also home to Kanye West and Justin Bieber) in 2009 and helmed his blog-beloved 2011 mixtape, Nostalgia, Ultra.
Then in early July 2012 came the Tumblr post heard round the world. Two weeks before the scheduled release of Channel Orange, Ocean published a portion of the album’s liner notes on the online platform, following a lengthy New York Times profile in which he spoke of a romantic relationship but conspicuously avoided gender pronouns. In strikingly heartfelt prose, he recounted falling in love with another man at 19. It was a bold move—especially considering the hypermasculine, often openly antigay nature of hip-hop culture.
Ocean made his TV debut July 9 on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, in what became a defining moment. “They arranged a beautiful version of ‘Bad Religion’ with the Roots, and it was a stunner,” Fallon tells EW. “It was like, ‘I am witnessing something crazy, as it’s happening.’” Just as the Internet went into overdrive processing and praising that performance, the next bomb landed: Fallon announced that Channel Orange was available on iTunes immediately—a full week early. By the time the credits rolled, the album had already shot to No. 1 on Apple’s album sales chart.
The 131,000 copies Orange sold in its first week was strong enough to land the No. 2 spot on the Billboard 200 chart, and Ocean’s run continued with a coveted musical-guest spot on the Sept. 15 season premiere of Saturday Night Live, which featured a drop-in from Orange collaborator John Mayer. But many believe that Grammy night is going to bring a transformation for him—even if an alleged altercation with Chris Brown on Jan. 27 outside an L.A. recording studio (Ocean tweeted that he was “jumped” by the troubled R&B artist; he has decided not to press charges, though the police report is predictably heinous) left him with a finger injury that he said will hinder his performance at the ceremony. “The professionals and the music lovers who vote for the Grammys are saying ‘Thank you, Frank Ocean, for trying something new, thank you for reaching and not doing what everyone else is doing,’” says producer Jim Jonsin, who has worked with Eminem and Usher and is on the Grammy Board of Governors.
That revolution may already be under way, even if it can’t be easily confined to one genre. “He sings, but I think of Frank as a hip-hop artist,” says Stewart. “We talked about that. He said, ‘You think I’m R&B?’ And I said, ‘I think people will call you R&B.’ But his thought process is coming out of a place that is one side Jay-Z-influenced and on the other side Kurt Cobain-influenced.”
As odd as those disparate comparisons may sound, Ocean does indeed pull from and appeal to an unusually wide swath of artists: He himself has taken on a Radiohead cover, and both Justin Bieber and ’90s alt icons Afghan Whigs have paid tribute to him in concert. Says Spoon frontman Britt Daniel, who’s performed Ocean’s “Lost” with his side project the Divine Fits, “[His] production style really does make it stand out. It’s an R&B record, or a rap record, but it doesn’t sound Pro Tools’d to death. It’s very loose and human-sounding.”
That approach would seem like an uphill battle in a singles-minded music culture, but Ocean stands defiantly as an album artist. (After all, this is a guy who also dropped the nine-minute, multi-movement “Pyramids” as a standalone track.) “Who doesn’t want a body of work?” asks Pharrell Williams, who produced two tracks on Channel Orange. “There’s always gonna be singles, there’s always gonna be one-hit wonders, there’s always gonna be songs that make you remember the summer. Then there’s gonna be those integral bodies of work, and that’s what the world needs. After hearing an album like his, you start to realize how much you’ve missed it, and if you haven’t experienced it before, how much you’d like to on a continual basis.”
Ocean’s work had a similar effect on those around him while working on Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch the Throne. To some audiences, Ocean may be best known as the hook singer on that album’s “No Church in the Wild,” the go-to track for Dodge commercials and film trailers. “When I heard him sing that hook, I was under the assumption that Kanye wrote it and Frank was just the voice—it did so much with so few words,” says 88-Keys, who co-produced “No Church.” “It took me a second to realize that this dude just wrote an incredible piece and pretty much summed up the hierarchy of mankind in one hook. I was blown away.”
So what comes next? Unlike most rising artists, Ocean rarely grants interviews and performs only sporadically; few would be surprised if he took an extended hiatus from music altogether. In December, he told U.K. newspaper The Guardian that Channel Orange could be his last album. “[Storytelling] is the more interesting part of making music for me,” he said, positing that he might “put out a best-selling novel next year, then, you know, design an arena in Stockholm in 2014. I don’t know!… As long as your intentions are solid, and about growth and progression and being productive and not being idle, then you’re doing good in my book.”
Even his collaborators are unsure of his next move. “Frank is like the wind, man. There’s no predicting it,” says Williams. “You can concentrate on jet streams all you want, but that’s just the jet stream. There’s so much more to it.”
And maybe that is the true draw of Frank Ocean: Whether he walks away with a half dozen gilded gramophones or goes home empty-handed on Grammy night, we may have only scratched the surface of a truly singular talent.
This piece appeared in a slightly altered form in the Feb. 1 issue of Entertainment Weekly.