A steady drumbeat of praise greeted the arrival of Frank Ocean's debut album, Channel Orange. He's up for six Grammy Awards, including best new artist, album and record. Orange won a Soul Train Music Award for album of the year in November and has piled up mentions on numerous best-of-2012 lists.
And now it's USA TODAY's album of the year.
The R&B singer stirred debate just before he released the album in July, by acknowledging via Tumblr that his first love was a man. It was a courageous (and, he has said, liberating) move, considering the genre's perceived homophobia. Yet it was the music itself that would hold everyone's interest, pointing R&B in different direction, away from the conventional club hookups and late-night booty calls.
Ocean certainly has a penchant for radio-friendly lyrics, having written for Beyoncé, Brandy and Justin Bieber. His own music is more nuanced, empathetic and emotionally resonant. Fusing neo-soul, hip-hop, electro-pop, jazz-funk and psychedelic, he shifts moods and tempo and speaks in metaphors in songs about love, disillusionment, decadence, social status, drugs and betrayal.
Breaking the mold hasn't stopped him from doing fine commercially: Channel Orange ranked No. 2 in its first week on Billboard''s album chart. With 405,000 copies sold to date, it compares favorably to releases this year by more established R&B stars such as Chris Brown, Usher, Trey Songz and Ne-Yo.
Ocean is part of a new breed of artist, such as fellow Grammy nominee Miguel and Toronto's The Weeknd, who are fearlessly blazing their own paths.
His low-key but intense performances on tour this summer enhanced the positive perception of him. He practically stole the show at MTV's Video Music Awards in September, offering a serene performance of Thinkin Bout You before a simulated campfire that stood out amid the program's usual bombast. For many, that was their true introduction to Ocean's artistry.
Although Channel Orange is Ocean's major-label debut, the album's widespread acclaim comes not so much as a surprise as a fulfillment of promise. The New Orleans musician born Christopher Breaux got critics talking with his 2011 mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra, and his vocals on No Church In the Wild (from Jay-Z and Kanye West's Watch the Throne) made him someone who would bear watching.
Now everyone will be watching to see what he'll do next.