Getting To Know R&B Wonderboy Frank Ocean, Fresh Off His VMA Gig

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Frank Ocean performs at this year's Lollapalooza. (Photo by Jason Shaltz)

Frank Ocean performs at this year’s Lollapalooza. (Photo by Jason Shaltz)

Maybe you know Frank Ocean from his hooks on Kanye West and Jay-Z’s Watch the Throne, or through his card-carrying membership in Odd Future, or his big gigs at Coachella or Lollapalooza. It could be because he’s a real artist’s artist who cut his teeth penning songs for Beyonce (“Miss You” off 4, for example), Justin Bieber, Brandy and John Legend, or because he became the focus of media fervor earlier this summer when he beautifully and bravely revealed his bisexuality in a blog post

Or maybe, just maybe if you’ve been sleeping on his Def Jam debut Channel Orange, it was Ocean’s coming-out performance (no pun intended) at tonight’s VMAs that finally caught your ear. It was a performance for which Ocean cancelled his opening slot on a European tour with Coldplay, just one of the bands he’s ingeniously sampled

Ocean’s VMA performance marks a turning point during a year full of turning points for R&B’s new (and necessary) voice. Earlier this year, before the Channel Orange madness struck, Ocean wrote on his Tumblr, “In 30 years I’ll be legend or an obscure tastemaker reference.” Based on his sound – a high-concept, hyper-literate, hip-hop-informed take on R&B and soul – seems Ocean might be able to achieve both mainstream appeal and tastemaker cred. For all his buzz, Ocean is a true album artist – he hasn’t had “the song of the summer” and isn’t in heavy rotation on many Top 40 radio playlists, but he’s a person to know among tastemakers — including smash hit singer Adele.

Frank’s Tumblr was also where, a year earlier, he freaked out about working with Jay and Ye on two tracks from 2011’s Watch the Throne (“No Church in the Wild” and “Made in America”). Months later, he’d use the blog for a bit of real talk with his fans, addressing blog rumors spurred by his songs “Forrest Gump” and “Bad Religion,” pining odes utilizing male pronouns, that he was gay. Ocean told the story of falling in love – yes, with a man – in the summer of 2008 and embarking on a life-changing relationship. 

Ocean later explained his decision to come out to The Guardian, saying: “It was important for me to know that when I go out on the road and I do these things, that I’m looking at people who are applauding because of an appreciation for me. I don’t have many secrets, so if you know that, and you’re still applauding … it may be some sort of sick validation but it was important to me.” 

Less than a week later, Channel Orange dropped – and debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 album chart, selling 131,000 copies in its first week. Ocean, born Christopher Breaux and raised in New Orleans, was no longer just a ghostwriter for other artists, no longer completely neglected to the major label that signed him way back in 2009 but never bothered to develop him. 

Those who have been paying attention to Ocean – maybe since he joined L.A. rap rebel-rousers Odd Future in 2009 or dropped his buzzy mixtape Nostalgia Ultra in 2011 – have seen his journey toward stardom progress promisingly. But the talent? The talent has always been there. Between the VMAs and his upcoming performance on Saturday Night Live‘s season premiere next week, the whole wide world is finally noticing it. 

- Jillian Mapes, CBS Local

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