Grammys 2013: Frank Ocean always does things his way
Frank Ocean stood alone onstage, his now trademark headband wrapped tightly, to sing “Forrest Gump” on a set that made it seem as though he were on an outdoor treadmill.
The singer had won two Grammys, had thanked an audience that was just getting to know him. He had watched the Black Keys run toward a sweep, only to be later silenced by Mumford & Sons. He’d been robbed by future one-hit-wonders Fun. for best new artist and beaten by Gotye for song of the year. The losses no doubt stung.
FOR THE RECORD:
Frank Ocean: A critic’s notebook on Frank Ocean in the Feb. 11 Calendar section said the singer performed “Bad Religion” on “Saturday Night Live.” In addition to “Thinkin’ Bout You,” he performed “Pyramids.” Also, the article said Gotye won the Grammy for song of the year. The musical act won the award for record of the year. —
Then came “Forrest Gump,” the final song on “Channel Orange,” and you realized, once again, how the Grammys had missed the most exciting new figure on the scene. Besides his arrival as a magnetic songwriter, this piece of writing most obviously addresses the other transformative event that set him apart last year: the revelation that his first romantic love was to a young man he had nicknamed Forrest Gump. His performance said volumes about how Ocean has dictated his own success and perhaps predicted his Sunday slights.
Any recognition for Ocean — he won Grammys for urban contemporary album and shared in the rap/sung collaboration award for Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “No Church in the Wild,” which he co-wrote and sings on — signals a welcome for someone willing to break out of the ridiculously limiting rules of commercial pop music, someone who at age 25 aspires to speak to a broad genre-defying audience but on his own musical terms.
He virtually ignored commercial radio, avoided songs with obvious pop hooks, sentiments and structures, released a nine-minute jam “Pyramids,” as a single. And when he performed “Forrest Gump” near the end of a relatively lackluster show, he adapted it for the telecast to be a slower, more ethereal version — and ditched the catchy rhythms altogether. Though everyone else chose upbeat, he chose quiet and pensive.
Maybe these out-of the-box moves doomed him from the major awards. Breaking even one of these rules spells commercial suicide for most so-called R&B; singers (Ocean hates the term, saying it’s restrictive). The Grammy tally could suggest that his instincts work in some venues better than others. Mumford & Sons, Fun. and Gotye owned radio in 2012; “Thinkin’ Bout You,” the highest-charting single from “Channel Orange,” barely tracked on the FM dial.
Onstage, though, Ocean exuded self-confidence despite his soft-spokeness, shyness and, yes, vocal flatness, a furrow-browed artiste unafraid to fan his feathers or the flames when it comes to his music. Speaking with GQ magazine about “Channel Orange” and his pre-release blog post acknowledging that falling in love with a man was a focus of the record, Ocean was direct: “I knew that if I was going to say what I said, it had to be in concert with one of the most brilliant pieces of art that has come out in my generation. And that’s what I did. Why can I say that? Why I don’t have to affect all this humility and ... because I worked my ... off.”
Though the logic may be faulty “Channel Orange” is often brilliant.
This is an unusual musician who sprung from an extraordinary group of young L.A. rappers and producers, in a collective called Odd Future. Two other budding stars, Tyler, the Creator and Earl Sweatshirt, have also made sizable waves.
Ocean’s brashness has been apparent from the start, even if it took him a bit to grow into it. The gall, for example, to adapt the entire musical bed of the Eagles’ “Hotel California” in service of his own narrative, as he did for “American Wedding” on “Nostalgia, Ultra,” his debut mixtape, was an incitement, a pointed reuse of a classic rock song in service of a new narrative.
The very release of “Nostalgia,” which came out two years ago Monday, was a savvy maneuver: put out free through his blog after the label that signed him, Sony/Def Jam, ignored him for too long. He and his label are on good relations again, though.
It helps when your major label debut sells nearly half a million copies and snags half a dozen Grammy nominations.
But as evidenced Sunday, one-hit wonders and scream-along anthems can easily eclipse more nuanced, less hummable works, especially during such a transformational period in African American music. Last year hip-hop became more pop-friendly at one end and more experimental and expansive at the other. The only nonlegacy rapper who performed Sunday was Wiz Khalifa, and he mostly barked out monosyllables.
Meanwhile, rhythm & blues, a genre whose name was codified in the 1940s as a catch-all to pre-rock ‘n’ roll race music, over the years has become synonymous for any African American artist making popular music that’s not hip-hop.
Within this realm arrives Ocean and a few other artists (Dawn Richard, Janelle Monae, Drake, the Weeknd) intent on expanding R&B;'s language, including another Sunday breakout, San Pedro-born Miguel. But for me Ocean is the most striking of the bunch, mostly because of his voice, literally and lyrically. It’s nestled in every song, a writing style singular and sparkling. “We once had things in common,” he sings on “Pilot Jones.” “Now the only thing we share is a refrigerator.”
His verbal journeys take him all over. He conjures Sierra Leone’s pink sunsets in “Sierra Leone,” travels to Little Rock, Ark., for the record’s key tragedy, “Crack Rock.” He’s in Ladera Heights on “Sweet Life,” drinking “too many bottles of wine we can’t pronounce” on “Super Rich Kids.”
And on “Forrest Gump,” he begins with the line “my fingertips and my lips/ They burn from the cigarettes/ Forrest Gump you run my mind, boy.”
On Sunday, he delivered these lines with a rich baritone, a voice that carries not only depth but texture. He used it with a casual grace, phrasing his lines patiently, bobbing and weaving vocal melodies while playing chords on an electric piano. Yes, his tone is a touch unpracticed — but the roughness adds personality.
It’s easy to forget the distance he’s come. At Ocean’s first major Los Angeles performance in November 2011, he was tentative, obviously nervous in front of a sold-out El Rey. He began the set not with one of his own songs but with Sade’s slow-burning “By Your Side.”
By the time of “Channel Orange’s” release last June, a huge and wonderfully diverse demographic at the sold-out Wiltern had embraced “Nostalgia, Ultra,” its hit song “Novacane” and his newly released song of longing, “Thinkin’ Bout You.” The crowd sang every word.
If his run at the Grammys marks a beginning — Prince wasn’t even nominated for best new artist when he was eligible — his performance of “Forrest Gump” marks a kind of an end. All year long, at each televised moment during the “Channel Orange” year, Ocean didn’t play it, and each time I was disappointed. When he opened the 2012 season of “Saturday Night Live,” he did so by doing “Thinkin’ About You” and “Bad Religion.”
But Sunday’s performance in front of millions represents a dive into sea he’d otherwise dipped only his toe in. It was cold and somewhat unforgiving, yes. But as Ocean will no doubt come to understand, the water feels warmer the longer you stay in.
From the Emmys to the Oscars.
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