When Kanye West and Jay-Z released their marquee collaboration “Watch the Throne,” they mostly eschewed guests.
Sure, Jay-Z’s wife Beyonce made an appearance, as did Kanye protege Mr. Hudson.
But really, the album only featured one true foreign presence: a singer by the name of Frank Ocean.
Ocean’s path to “Watch the Throne” was unconventional. Only 24 years old, he spent the last five years in Los Angeles, and he made it first as a songwriter, penning lyrics for guys like Justin Bieber and John Legend.
But listen to Ocean’s voice. No way was he destined to remain behind the scenes.
Sure enough, he soon signed a deal with Island/Def Jam. Problems with the label led him to release his debut album “Nostalgia, Ultra” for free — grab it here —and his association with fledgling hip-hop provocateurs Odd Future helped him move downloads at a blistering pace.
Then, Jay and Kanye came calling.
True to his origins, Ocean’s main strength — aside from his versatile falsetto — is his songwriting. Highlights on “Nostalgia” include the gorgeous “Thinking About You,” ” pithy “Songs for Women” and “Swim Good,” a lithe and impossibly cool track halfway between boast and lament.
He’s begun worldwide touring as well, including a date in New York that had to be canceled due to illness, to the disappointment of many fans. (He has since rescheduled the shows for November 27 and 28.)
And not only did Kanye offer to work on his upcoming album, scheduled for release in 2012 — Ocean was confident enough to turn him down.
Ocean’s ascent as a legitimate commercial artist has fused two of the biggest business narratives that seem to populate today’s music industry. The first is that of the career launched by way of a free mixtape. The second is his association with a buzzworthy, controversial collective, in this case Odd Future.
His tangential path to stardom also allows him to straddle indie and mainstream circles, including earning the title of GQ’s Rookie of the Year in 2011.
Either way, expect to start seeing way more of Frank Ocean, both as a guest and on his own.
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