Artist of the Year: Frank Ocean
Frank Ocean had the type of year that sabermetrics junkies would hate. He certainly didn't sell as many records as Taylor Swift, and his hype machine paled in comparison to those of Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, Chris Brown and others who specialize in driving the Internet nuts. On the radio, Maroon 5, Mumford & Sons, Usher, Drake, Justin Bieber and 2 Chainz were more ubiquitous voices. Yet it's arguable that no other musician had a bigger impact than Frank Ocean, even if it takes a deeper analysis than mere record sales and radio airplay to reach that conclusion.
For starters, channel ORANGE, Frank Ocean's official debut following last year's Internet mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra, has been universally hailed as an extraordinary record. Nearly every major critic's list has rated it the best album of 2012. Its sales have been modest, though it should get a boost from a slew of recently announced Grammy nominations, including one for Album of the Year. Its lead single, "Thinkin Bout You" skirted only the lower depths of the Billboard Top 40 Singles chart, though it has fared better on the R&B/Hip-Hop Singles list, where it currently sits in the Top 10; in any event, despite its moderate commercial appeal, channel ORANGE was a significant musical event that elicited the kind of 1,000-word, deeply interpretive essays normally reserved for a new Kanye West opus or Swift's latest million-seller.
Along with Canadian artist The Weeknd, Ocean epitomizes what some call "alternative R&B," a buzzword classifying the works of Miguel, Dawn Richard, Solange, How to Dress Well, Kindness, Jessie Ware, AlunaGeorge and others, marked by swirling, hallucinatory synthesizer melodies and drum machines. Lyrically, though Ocean and The Weeknd seem dissimilar. As captured on Trilogy, a collection of three EPs the latter released on the Internet last year, he specializes in debauchery, all-night sex sessions ridden with guilt and loathing, and drug-and-alcohol-fueled parties. Ocean often visits the dark side of Los Angeles -- on his 2011 single "Novacane," he hooks up with a porn star and ends up filming her orgies. But he writes from the viewpoint of a slightly jaded yet ultimately sympathetic participant in these events, while The Weeknd portrays himself as a gloriously cynical protagonist.
But the two have one thing in common: Both dispense with the fake courtship rituals and romantic foreplay that dominate so much contemporary pop music, and expose our raw desires with unadorned honesty. For Ocean, that means writing songs with meandering lyrical structures and cursory verses -- "Lost" only has "Lost, lost in the heat of it all" as a hook -- to arrive at deeper truths within the situations he presents to us.
"Thinkin Bout You" is a near-perfect lament of sexual longing and thwarted desire: When he sings the chorus, "Or do you not think so far ahead/ 'Cause I been thinking 'bout forever," it sounds like he's crying the words. In one swoop, he reveals that R&B isn't just a soundtrack for late-night booty calls and nightclub meat markets. It's also an instrument for emotional catharsis, and when used properly, it can create a powerfully intimate listening experience. Few moments in popular music history are as resonant as singers pouring their hearts into words of love, whether it's Billie Holiday singing "Good Morning Heartache" through mascara-streaked tears or Stevie Wonder singing, "Where were you when I needed you last winter" as if he's overwhelmed and gasping for breath.
Channel ORANGE is both a document of heartbreak and a coming-of-age story set in Los Angeles. Its topic matter spreads beyond the vagaries of love, from "Super Rich Kids" who can't deal with their inheritances to the odalisque strippers of "Pyramids." Yes, it's true that Ocean is the first major R&B artist to tell us that he enjoys same-sex relationships, thanks to a much-disseminated post on his Tumblr blog. There are few precedents: Despite recent pioneers like Meshell Ndegeocello and Rahsaan Patterson, no black musician of his stature has ever come out. Remarkably, few think of him as a "gay" artist. His greatest achievement in 2012 may be that his music rose above our prurient curiosity over his private life.
Instead, when we think about Frank Ocean, we remember that hour in early July when we first heard channel ORANGE in full, and the times when we played it over and over afterward as it became the soundtrack to our summer. We recall picking out our favorite songs, from "Sweet Life" to "Bad Religion," and delighting to his performances on Saturday Night Live and the MTV Video Music Awards. His music held deeper resonance for us than anyone else's, and that's why he's our Artist of the Year.