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Concert review: Frank Ocean reveals the softer side of Odd Future

Scott Sterling/KPCC
Scott Sterling/KPCC

This is all Kanye West’s fault.

When he ran off to Hawaii with a clutch of old new wave records to nurse a broken heart only to return two weeks later with his polarizing 2008 release, 808s & Heartbreak, the rap game had changed – dramatically.

By exploding the concept of “emo-rap” into an Autotuned lost love lament fueled on lush synthesizers and Tears For Fears samples, the hip-hop nation took it as a green light to get in touch with their own feelings. Soon, artists like Kid Cudi and Drake were living out grandiose emotional dramas on record and in the tabloids, much to the delight of the buying public.

Now on the edge of 2012, we have rapidly emerging artists like Odd Future MVP, Frank Ocean. While the OF crew have built a controversial reputation on an explosive miasma of punk rock nihilism and sacred cow slaughtering, Frank Ocean comes at you as a hardcore lover, not a fighter.

Swirling in the same atmospheric soundspace as Toronto artist/Drake affiliate the Weeknd, Frank Ocean made an instant impact with the release of the free Nostalgia, Ultra mixtape earlier this year. It floats from dreamy, Coldplay-like ballad “Strawberry Swing” to the dramatic heartbreak epic “American Wedding,” which is basically a rewrite of the Eagles’ FM radio staple, “Hotel California.” Sprinkled liberally with graphic sex and drug references, clever pop culture references (the song “Novocane” is set in the fields of Coachella) and Ocean’s yearning, unselfconscious vocals, the mixtape is a surprisingly realized work for someone in their early 20s. Beyonce was so impressed that she called oh Ocean to work on her most recent album, 4, resulting in the mid-tempo song “I Miss You.”

When Ocean rolled in the El Rey this week for a show that sold out mere minutes after going on sale, it was the hottest ticket in town since M83’s triumphant show at the Music Box a week earlier. Fans lined up around the block to get in, with security guards inexplicably passing out large Chinese hats to the waiting hordes, creating a sea of bamboo inside.

Ocean took minimalism to an extreme with his stage presentation, standing alone on a Persian rug in the middle of an otherwise bare stage. Dressed in a conservative coat and tie, he simply crooned through an eclectic set that ranged from most of Nostalgia, Ultra, his songwriting contributions to Kanye West and Jay-Z’s Watch The Throne album (“No Church In The Wild”) and an ominous new song, “Super Rich Kids,” which would pair nicely with Jay-Z’s controversial “Occupy All Streets” t-shirts.

While most shows featuring a skinny guy just standing there emoting to a backing track would be the epitome of boring. But given Ocean’s deft hand at songwriting and emotional delivery, the women in the crown were especially enraptured (every song from Nostalgia, Ultra was a high-pitched sing-along). Like so many young artists, Ocean is learning how to navigate a live show on the job, and we get to watch every painstaking detail. There were more than a few awkward moments, but Ocean used them to his advantages, particularly with the females at the front of the stage.

Things got a lot more visceral with the appearance of Tyler, The Creator, who joined Ocean for a rousing rendition of their collaboration “She,” found on Tyler’s Goblin album. Ocean also infamously played Guitar Hero along to the aforementioned Eagles-powered “American Wedding,” a move that has been a point of contention for many critics over this brief tour.

Closing the show with a quiet version of “I Miss You” at the piano, Ocean’s pleading vocals literally reduced the girl behind me to tears. So while critics and naysayers are quick to highlight Ocean’s live shortcomings, the little girls more than understand. As long as the songs keep coming, Frank Ocean will be around for a while.