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Who Is Frank Ocean? The Grammys Newbie Is About To Meet The Mainstream

Frank Ocean performs at the MTV Video Music Awards on Thursday, Sept. 6, 2012, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Mark J. Terrill/Invision/AP)
Frank Ocean performs at the MTV Video Music Awards on Thursday, Sept. 6, 2012, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Mark J. Terrill/Invision/AP)

Wait, everyone know who Frank Ocean is, right?

Actually, no.

Sure, he dominated the 2012 year-end best albums lists, and is entering the 2013 Grammys with a leading six nominations, including nods for best album and best new artist as well as two for singing the indelible hook on Kanye West and Jay-Z's "No Church In The Wild." But Ocean's album "Channel Orange" has only sold 500,000 records and he's simply not a well-known name.

Yes, I know you love Frank's debut "Channel Orange," but your mom probably thinks he's Billy Ocean's son. Before you get out of this article and into our car, let me explain.

As serious music fans, we can get blinded by the fact that just because everyone we know is familiar with a musician or band, it doesn't mean the mainstream is. This was made crystal clear at the Grammys two years ago when Arcade Fire picked up an armload of awards, including Album of the Year, inspiring a chorus of "Who Is Arcade Fire" tweets and status updates (which were eventually gathered into this brilliant Tumblr). And they'd sold about a million copies of "The Suburbs," which was their fourth release.

So let's do some background on Grammy's golden boy.

Frank Ocean first came to the music world's attention in 2010 as a member of Odd Future, a controversial L.A. hip-hop collective best known for button-pushing rape jokes and homophobic slurs as well as mosh pit-crazed live shows. Ocean stood out immediately from his brethren by being older, saner and an R&B singer rather than a rapper. But the popularity of Odd Future amongst both hip-hop fans and the indie intelligentsia gave Ocean an immediate audience.

He'd started out in his New Orleans hometown, but moved to Los Angeles after his home studio was flooded and looted during Katrina. In L.A. he established a career as a ghostwriter for the likes of Justin Bieber and John Legend, but in 2011 he released a free mixtape called "Nostalgia, Ultra" which landed a surprise hit in "Novacane," a song that, much like fellow avant-R&B artist The Weekend, recounts sex and drugs debauchery, albeit with infinitely more regret. In it Ocean namechecked the hipster nation's favourite festival Coachella, and by the following year he was a main draw (backed by Canadian hip-hop instrumentalists, BadBadNotGood).

The mixtape made it to Kanye and Jay-Z, who brought Ocean onto their smash "Watch The Throne" album to sing the hook on a couple tunes, including the aforementioned Grammy-nominated single "No Church In The Wild" as well as "Made In America." He also started writing for Beyonce.

Then last summer, just before Ocean's major label debut "Channel Orange" dropped, the singer posted the album liner notes to Tumblr, an open letter to his fans which recounted the first time he fell in love. It was with a man.

Ocean's hand was forced somewhat by music critics who had heard the new album at listening parties and noticed the use of unexpected pronouns. But the reaction to Ocean's honesty was incredibly positive, including from across the notoriously homophobic hip-hop world and, especially, his Odd Future friends who made it clear this was not news to them.

The album came out to widespread acclaim, particularly for songs like the single "Thinkin Bout You," the eight-minute experimental ballad "Pyramids" and "Super Rich Kids," a genius collab with Odd Future MC Earl Sweatshirt. His performance of "Bad Religion" on Jimmy Fallon went viral and his subsequent tour sold out immediately.

When the 55th annual Grammy Awards nominations were announced, Ocean nabbed nominations in Best New Artist, Record of the Year for "Thinkin Bout You," Album of the Year and Best Urban Contemporary Album for "Channel Orange" and Best Rap/Sung Collaboration and Best Long Form Music Video for "No Church In The Wild."

The combination of commercial success, critical acclaim and social progressiveness will be a hard one for Grammy voters to pass up. You never can tell, given the academy's history of undeserving nominees and winners, but it looks like Ocean should be returning home from the Staples Center with an armload of Grammy Awards, including even Best Album.

In which case, all the "Who Is Frank Ocean?" tweets will begin to fly and you can just point people right over here to answer their questions. And, hopefully, by the next time Ocean releases a classic album, nobody will be wondering if he's related to Billy.

2013 Grammy Nominees
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