Inside, at the SLS’ The Bazaar restaurant, Clancy and Ocean sit together on a leather bench and speak in jags, eyeballing the menu and shooing the waiter. Clancy is deep in her Blackberry. When she finally comes up for air, she prattles on about Ocean in the third person, explaining how they are both Scorpios, and while the traits of the sign seem true to her general nature, Ocean’s disposition is less predictable. It’s a strange rant that eventually meanders into an aside with her, possibly accidentally, explaining that she is generally on eggshells with Ocean. He endures the monologue, cool as a cucumber, sitting with terrific posture and his hands politely in his lap. He orders an Arnold Palmer and downs it.
In the four months since Ocean released Nostalgia, Ultra, he’s seen his star rise tremendously, despite the fact that the album was released only as a free, grey area download. This is as much attributable to Ocean’s skill as it is his affiliation with the high-profile LA rap collective, Odd Future. “I met them at a function my homie John-O was throwing in the valley,” he says. “Each of us are pretty autonomous, but we all benefit from being associated with one another.” At the time he released Nostalgia, Odd Future’s Tyler, the Creator, was at the peak of his (internet) saturation. With a nod from Tyler to his 300,000 Twitter followers to download Ocean’s songs, an easy frenzy ensued. Nostalgia hit so hard because no one knew to expect it. The low profile is mostly due to the fact it was released outside the bounds of his official deal with Island/Def Jam, which he’d signed a few years ago via Tricky Stewart, an occasional A&R and prolific, well-respected producer from Atlanta, who he got to know while working as a songwriter. Despite I/DJ’s initial lack of support, Ocean says any negative feelings, if they existed, were all in the past. “We’re good now.” The label plans to reissue the release with bonus tracks (minus the songs whose samples could not be cleared) and Ocean is working on a new album, as well.
Regardless of whether or not the listening public was paying attention, the personhood Ocean perfected on Nostalgia has popped up across the R&B landscape the past two or three years with songs he’s written for hire. As a solo artist, Ocean has a coherent narrative as a naïve and funny adventure seeker, and that wide-eyed lust for life is just as apparent on his songs for others. On “1st and Love,” which he wrote for Brandy in 2008, Ocean exhibits his typical boyish wonder at grownup romance, puppy love always trumping adult complexity. Like our names carved into a tree/ They’re memories inside of me/ Don’t know how long forever is/ But if you stay with me you’ll find out with me. “I call them childish moments in my life, all that love shit in the trees and shit,” Ocean says. “That’s something so sincere and endearing about writing. I enjoy writing like that sometimes. I enjoy photography in a record.” But Ocean composes songs more like a director than a photographer—there are moving parts and characters, details and back-stories. In addition to the sweet carved-heart narrative of “1st and Love,” there are also references to Brandy’s brother Ray J, and love hitting first like a moving truck, and then like an enema. “Creative writing coupled with what music is, just within itself, the instrumentation, the melody without any words, just humming, the emotions, the notes by themselves and together can emote, coupled with my knack for writing, there’s a power in that,” Ocean says. “There’s a power to really getting all of that shit out.” His quirky lyricism soon led to a small number of guest features as a singer, like on Brandy’s excellent “Surprise Ending,” where he sings of being on the edge of his seat, What’s the surprise?/ What’s the surprise?/ What’s the surprise? The surprise is she breaks up with him.
R&B is widely considered to music what the romance novel is to literature, and, at least to his manager, who warns sternly that Ocean is not an R&B artist, R&B is a dirty word. (On the genre, Ocean offers only a riddle: “If I said you were a dove but you were a swan would that be accurate?”) But Nostalgia is unapologetically an R&B album, and a fantastic one, at that. To Ocean’s credit, his brand of R&B resembles its hippie strains in the ’60s, more Bo Diddley strutting with a square guitar or Shuggie Otis singing “Strawberry Letter 23” with his giant afro swinging in the breeze than today’s major stars like Ne-Yo or Trey Songz—accomplished singers, sure, but often generic and occasionally corny. In terms of his music’s blustering swagger, and befitting his membership in Odd Future, Ocean’s closest peers are rappers.