In honor of the impending Grammy Awards, DeepSoul takes a closer look at one of the nominees: Frank Ocean, a talent heralded as the future of R&B. His 2011 mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra and his breakthrough major label effort Channel Orange have both challenged the limits of soul music, creating a swirling pastiche of rock, funk, psychedelia, and hip hop. The easiest comparison is to the genre-bending Prince, and Ocean certainly resembles his originality. However, Ocean’s sound is his own, and he has succeeded in expanding the concept of rhythm and blues music. Channel Orange’s “Thinkin’ ‘Bout You” embodies Ocean’s eclectic approach, and his impressive range demonstrates that he approaches his vocals in a similar way to Marvin Gaye and other expressive singers.
Ocean’s story starts in New Orleans, where he was born and raised. As he began his freshman year at the University of New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina hit; he subsequently relocated to Los Angeles to pursue a music career full time. After shopping around some homemade demos, he earned a songwriting contract that found him penning songs for Justin Bieber, Beyonce, John Legend, and Brandy. Soon he signed a recording deal with Def Jam Records in 2009; at the same time he joined the hip hop collective Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All. He wrote songs and occasionally performed with the controversial troupe; meanwhile he wrote, recorded, and released his 2011 mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra through his website. Its fascinating, brutally honest approach attracted fans such as Beyonce and Kanye West. Eventually two songs were released as singles: the arresting “Novacane” and hallucinogenic “Swim Good.” The former reached number 17 on the R&B/Hip Hop chart, an impressive beginning for an emerging artist.
Nostalgia, Ultra earned him such a reputation that he was able to recruit stars such as John Mayer, Andre 3000, and Pharrell Williams for his debut album. Critics immediately praised the effort, and Ocean’s blog post about his bisexuality gave the lyrics even more depth. Ocean may have initially made headlines with his sexual orientation, but he quickly proved that his talent was genuine. Live appearances on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and Saturday Night Live wowed audiences with their intensity. On the latter show, Ocean performed the ballad “Thinkin’ ‘Bout You,” a meditation on young love and its wildly fluctuating feelings.
In the first verse, Ocean uses weather metaphors to describe how love caused turbulence in his life: 'A tornado flew around me room before you came/Excuse the mess it made, it usually doesn’t rain/In Southern California, much like Arizona/My eyes don’t shed tears, but boy they pour when..."
Then Ocean unleashes the power of his voice, his ability to dramatize stories through his vast range: “I’m thinkin’ ‘bout you/ Do you think about me still, do ya, do ya?” he sings, letting his voice drop on the word “still.” To heighten the tension, he soars into falsetto on the lines “Or do you not think so far ahead/ Cause I’ve been thinking ‘bout forever.” During the bridge he assumes a conversational tone, pleading “You know you were my first time, a new feel,” but resolves that “It will never get old, not in my soul, not in my spirit, keep it alive/ We’ll go down this road ‘til it turns from color to black and white.” Think of “Thinkin’ ‘Bout You” as the male perspective on Adele’s “Someone Like You.”
Ocean’s success proves that listeners are ready for R&B that defies conventions. “Thinkin’ ‘Bout You” and other Channel Orange tracks demand close listening and an open mind, a willingness to accept anomalies and complicated lyrics. Sample this single, the rest of Channel Orange, and Nostalgia, Ultra and experience how he and other artists like Janelle Monae are transforming modern soul.