On Nostalgia, Ocean is nimble, all things to all people, sometimes sultry, sometimes goofy. (Even when he graduates to adult moments, he’s still playful, like on the MGMT-sampling “Nature Feels,” which opens with the line I’ve been meaning to fuck you in the garden.) Instead of sinking to R&B’s usual gushy tropes, he sings simultaneously about and for women. On the very literal “Songs for Women,” he is charmingly self-effacing and punning, singing of how even his girl isn’t taken with his skills: She don’t even listen to the songs I record/ But she be banging Drake in my car/ I’m so far gone, she stay blasting Trey and his songs all day long/ It’s like she never heard of me. Like anyone with esteem issues, Ocean cuts himself down before someone else can. At least he’s funny. The next song features a clip of Nicole Kidman railing against her husband in Eyes Wide Shut. It’s fitting that, in a movie featuring a teen prostitute and a lavish masked orgy, Ocean finds the single moment where she sounds suspiciously like Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally.
But Ocean is more an R&B Woody Allen than Stanley Kubrick (or Rob Reiner, for that matter). Much of what sets his work apart is focus on character development and detail, often making his characters neurotic or helpless. “I’m really trying to create this environment around the song that makes the listener feel like they’re in this place and they’re hearing the story and not only are they hearing it, they’re really seeing it,” he says. While many popular ballads contain a generic “you” or “she,” Ocean writes fleshy beings with specific tastes and strong opinions. When he sings on “Novacane” that he met her at Coachella/ She went to see Jigga, I went to see Z-Trip, perfect/ I took a seat on an ice cold lawn, she handed me an ice blue bong, whatever, it’s more like he’s setting a scene for a California desert slacker film than writing a love song. And maybe he is. Fuck me good, fuck me long, fuck me numb./ Love me now, when I’m gone, love me none he sings despondently on the chorus. But instead of taking a routine turn and ending up a player, he finishes the song on a note lamenting loneliness: I can’t feel a thing/ I can’t feel her/ Novacane for the pain. Ultimately, it’s him who suffers and who receives the harshest treatment.
In plain conversation, Ocean talks like this too, dolloping sentences with takedowns like, “This might sound stupid” and “Sorry for rambling.” He’s a strange mixture of blunt and demure, and only speaks confidently about writing, something with which he has a tried and true history. Even then, he takes pains to avoid sounding smug. It may be a nitpicking perfectionism and not low self-esteem that prevents him from acknowledging his talents, but it still seems strange coming from an artist accruing accolades so quickly. Ocean has received numerous impressive radio plays with no promotion or media presence, and has since written with Kanye West, Jay-Z and Beyonce. He’s also dealt with requisite star Twitter beef, which bizarrely extended into real life. Chris Brown’s defensibly benign and complimentary tweet, “I fuck with Frank Ocean. Reminds me of a young James Fauntleroy or Kevin Cossom” was read by Ocean as a backhanded compliment (neither of those singers have found a mainstream toehold) and he retaliated by comparing Brown to Ike Turner, another R&B star who battered his more famous partner. This spurred a wild back-and-forth between Brown and Tyler, the Creator, which careened off the internet when Brown’s cousins videotaped themselves driving beside Ocean, heckling him. Ocean, who says not much more than “I don’t know you” on the tape, comes off much better than his tormentors. The beef, he says, is now “dead.” Shortly after, he tweeted that it was time to put a “freeze” on social networking. (He did stop by Twitter on July 4th to celebrate the joys of cold cereal as a late night snack.)