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Frank Ocean atop new R&B wave at Grammys

Greg Kot

6:11 PM EST, February 7, 2013

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Frank Ocean is that rare artist whom polar opposites — skeptical tastemakers in it for the art and music-industry insiders obsessed with chart position — can agree on. Ocean's major-label debut, "Channel Orange," recently found itself comfortably atop the annual Village Voice poll of more than 700 critics nationwide. And Ocean is up for six awards at the 55th annual Grammys, which will be announced Sunday in Los Angeles (7 p.m. on CBS).

The Grammys are voted on by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, a notoriously conservative group of music-industry professionals. But in recent years the academy has started to show signs of recognizing newer artists in their prime, rather than waiting for them to marinate a few decades before bestowing big awards on them (here's looking at you, Steely Dan). In recent years, the top awards have gone to Adele and Arcade Fire, relatively young, critically acclaimed artists. This year, the 25-year-old Ocean finds himself competing for three of the top four Grammys: album of the year ("Channel Orange"), record of the year ("Thinkin' 'Bout You") and best new artist.

His competition includes rising stars such as fun. and Mumford & Sons, who were each nominated for six Grammys, and Miguel and the Black Keys, each up for five awards. Ocean is the critics' favorite for album of the year, which is usually the kiss of death. He's up against some formidable contemporaries: the Black Keys ("El Camino"), fun. ("Some Nights"), Mumford & Sons ("Babel") and Jack White ("Blunderbuss"). In years past, one would have expected to see veterans such as Bruce Springsteen, Coldplay or Bonnie Raitt in this category, but this year the emphasis is very much on the new guard.

Though he has sold about 500,000 copies of "Channel Orange," no small accomplishment in an era of declining album sales, Ocean isn't quite on par with his competition as a commercial force. But he resonates as an adventurous artist and cultural symbol — he's in many ways the biggest music story of 2012.

Just before his album's release in July, Ocean revealed that he fell in love with a man when he was 19. As an R&B artist with ties to the hip-hop world (he's a member of the notorious collective Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All), Ocean had little to gain by making such an announcement. He's part of a music culture that has evinced little tolerance for gays and bisexuals. But his coming-out statement focused not on gender or equal rights, but on universal human feelings: passion, obsession, unrequited love. Two songs on "Channel Orange" were addressed to an unnamed "he," but again the nuanced nature of Ocean's songwriting and singing made that almost beside the point. By keeping things low-key, almost casual, rather than purporting to make some grand statement about gay liberation, Ocean put the focus where it belonged: on the art. And the music created a truth so undeniable that it transcended boundaries of sexuality, gender, generation and race.

"Channel Orange" is an album about what it feels like to be a stranger in a strange world. Ocean is a New Orleans kid who wound up in California, and his narrators find themselves seduced by sunshine and images of wealth, only to sin beneath numbing inertia, disconnection, drugs. The album drifts in a narcotic haze, and then delivers lightning bolts like "Bad Religion," a song that brilliantly, movingly distills the narrator's troubled life into a three-minute, one-sided conversation with a taxi driver.

Besides breaking with the aggressive swagger of most commercial R&B, Ocean also delivers music that depends less on beats, hooks and attitude than it does texture and insinuation. "Channel Orange" mixes folk melody, electronic atmosphere, soul-singer passion, Brazilian bossa-nova introspection and progressive, nonlinear arrangements. Ocean is one of many mold-breaking R&B artists to have emerged in recent years, including Miguel, whose "Kaleidoscope Dream" is similarly ambitious. Also part of the Ocean wave: the moody, late-night dramatics of the Weeknd, the psychedelic musings of Kid Cudi, the subtle anxieties of Solange and Dawn Richard. These artists' reference points aren't from the usual suspects or eras, but the highly personal work of Marvin Gaye post-"Let's Get It On," the more eccentric Prince albums from the '80s, and '70s cult heroes such as Shuggie Otis and Labi Siffre.

Ocean's personality also cuts against the trend toward bolder personalities that has sustained pop, rock, R&B and hip-hop in recent years: Nicki Minaj, Lady Gaga and Rihanna plot each move for maximum social-media impact, and new bands such as The Lumineers and Mumford & Sons hammer their acoustic instruments with heavy-handed gusto. But you won't find Ocean's name or picture anywhere on the cover of "Channel Orange." As the album's executive producer he lists "Everest," who happens to be the singer's Bernese mountain dog. It's as though Ocean would like to be invisible. But on Sunday night, he won't be.

greg@gregkot.com