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Sound of 2012: Frank Ocean

The BBC Sound Of 2012 list showcases some of music’s most exciting emerging stars, selected by more than 180 leading critics, bloggers and broadcasters.

This year’s runner-up is 24-year-old US R&B singer Frank Ocean. He is the penultimate artist to be revealed from the top five. The winner will be named on Friday.

Last June, Frank Ocean wrote down what he would tell his younger self if he could go back in time five years.

“You’re on a plane right now to the east coast to work with Kanye West and Jay-Z,” his message read. “It’s all working out kid. You made it.”

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Ocean has a right to be pleased with how far he has come.

Five years earlier, the 18-year-old Ocean had moved to Los Angeles from his native New Orleans and was struggling to make music while processing insurance claims. “I hated it,” he says.

But he would soon begin to make his name as a songwriter, co-writing tracks for Justin Bieber and John Legend, before joining the sprawling hip-hop collective Odd Future.

He signed a solo record deal but, frustrated with being left to languish in the major label system, decided to post his debut album Nostalgia, Ultra online for free last February.

Despite a lack of conventional promotion, fans soon cottoned on and the praise gathered pace.

Before long, he was on the plane to record vocals for two tracks on Jay-Z and Kanye West’s heavyweight collaboration Watch The Throne.

He was also called upon to co-write a track for Beyonce’s latest album 4, while his LP was ranked among the best of 2011 by a number of critics.

The Guardian, placing Nostalgia, Ultra third on its list of the best of albums of 2011, enthused about the “artistic vision that was his and his alone”.

Frank Ocean
Frank Ocean moved from New Orleans to Los Angeles after Hurricane Katrina in 2005

Los Angeles Times pop critic Randall Roberts compared Ocean to Kanye West and Drake, adding that he “one-ups them with more wit and better narratives”.

What would his 18-year-old self make of it all? “I think he’d be pretty stoked about it,” Ocean replies. “I’ve been working towards these moments for a considerable amount of time.”

Nostalgia, Ultra is an album packed with warm tones, languid grooves, satisfying hooks and vivid stories, helped by samples from the likes of Coldplay, MGMT and The Eagles.

Bridging the gap between classic vocal R&B and smart hip-hop, that artistic vision makes the album rare in its feeling of completeness and coherence.

“Have you ever seen Boyz N the Hood?” he asks, referring to the 1991 film.

“There are certain movies that are shot with a summer haze, that look like the best part of summer. That vibe in that film is super nostalgic for me and I was chasing those colours, trying to make a record that had that feel.”

Ocean, born Christopher Breaux, grew up with jazz in the streets and his mother’s CDs – Celine Dion, Anita Baker, the Phantom of the Opera soundtrack – on the car stereo.

As a teen, he did neighbourhood chores to fund his first studio sessions. “Oh man I had numerous hustles,” he recalls. “They all tended to be legal. Washing cars was one of them, and mowing lawns and walking dogs.”

Studio destroyed

Then in 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated his city and his recording facilities.

“The storm itself didn’t make me move, but the storm ruined my recording environment and the studio I was working in got looted and destroyed by floodwater,” he says. “I didn’t have a place to work in New Orleans so I left and came to LA.”

He intended to stay for just six weeks. But, starting to mix in music industry circles, realised he needed to stay longer to make things happen.

He fell in with producers whose main aim, he says, was to provide songs for other artists, and he co-wrote the song Quickly for John Legend in 2008 and Bigger for Justin Bieber the following year.

“There was a point where I was composing for other people, and it might have been comfy to continue to do that and enjoy that income stream and the anonymity,” he says. “But that’s not why I moved away from school and away from family.”

‘Dreams and talent’

The record deal with Def Jam followed, but he grew frustrated at their inaction after, in his words, “signing a kid with dreams and talent with no intention of following through”.

Given the reception the album has had since he released it himself, does he regret not putting it out the official way and getting the exposure that record label marketing muscle and chart success would have brought?

“No,” he says emphatically and repeatedly (and I am editing his forthright language), adding: “I make pop culture,” and insisting the charts do not matter.

Relations with Def Jam have been repaired and his second album – the first official release – is due this spring.

“We’re cool,” he says. “There is a new album coming. I’m super proud of it.”

If the next album can live up to its self-leaked predecessor, this is the start of the story for Frank Ocean.

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