When Frank Ocean's new studio album, "Channel Orange," was released on iTunes late on Monday night (July 9) -- just hours before he made his national TV debut on "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon" -- the cacophonous noises of opening track "Start" and moody rhythms of "Thinkin Bout You" didn't sound like the introduction of an unturned pebble of talent as much as the technicolor declaration of one of popular music's most promising new leaders. After all, Ocean's proper debut is just the latest achievement in a stunning two-year run for the introverted R&B virtuoso, whose debut mixtape, "Nostalgia, Ultra," was flung out into the world in February 2011 before quickly boomeranging back to the 24-year-old with a fresh coat of Internet buzz (the Billboard.com staff named the 14-song effort its 4th favorite album of 2011). Some new Odd Future tunes and a couple hooks for Jay and 'Ye later, Ocean was on every R&B addict's radar long before anyone heard the words "Channel" and "Orange" placed next to each other.
Still, for many casual, non-obsessive fans, "Channel Orange" is the first time that Ocean's silky vocals have graced their eardrums. And what exactly did they miss along the way? Check out Billboard.com's 10-song primer on all things Frank Ocean, from his best "Nostalgia" cuts to his inspired guest verses to one of his coolest songwriting selections. After hearing these tracks, you'll be all the more ready to embrace the cavernous wonders of "Channel Orange," which will receive a physical release on July 17.
Acura Intergurl (unreleased track)
A song that Ocean posted onto his Tumblr before the release of "Nostalgia," this unfussy cut compares a couple's divergent musical tastes to the inner workings of their relationship -- a theme Ocean revisited on the "Nostalgia" cut "Songs For Women." Whether you like Thom Yorke or Pimp C, it's hard not to get behind the falsetto Ocean unveils on the luxurious hook.
Novacane (from "Nostalgia, Ultra")
Ocean's highest-charting single to date is arguably his strongest pre-"Orange" song, an exploration of fleeting sensory explosions and the inevitable frustration coupled with trying to recapture magic. Here, the listener can immediately recognize the effortlessness of Ocean's songwriting: he recalls a chance meeting with a bewitching lady at Coachella as if having a conversation with a close friend, not grasping at a radio single.
No Church In The Wild (from Jay-Z and Kanye West's "Watch The Throne")
His other "Throne" track, "Made in America," is a charmingly contemporary celebration of black culture in America, but Ocean flaunts some downright dangerous angles here while pondering, what's a God to a non-believer? Most impressive: the 24-year-old stands his ground against two all-time great MCs and doesn't sound out-of-place as the first voice heard on their blockbuster album.
Swim Good (from "Nostalgia, Ultra")
Another "Nostalgia, Ultra" single that tosses out stabs of yearning and desperation as quickly as the beat snaps into place. Ocean is about to drive into the, er, ocean, and cries "No fair… no fear" as he tries to out-swim his pain. Oh, and the whole thing ends with gull sounds. Brilliant.
White (from Odd Future's "The Odd Future Tape Vol. 2")
Simply stated, the instrumental "White" that appears on "Channel Orange" isn't half as compelling as this unexpected treasure buried within the slick rhymes of Odd Future's latest release. Over the course of 90 seconds, Ocean touches upon the pangs of indecipherable romance ("What is this love? I don't feel the same/Don't believe what this is, could be given a name") that he described at length in his revealing blog post last week.
She (from Tyler, The Creator's "Goblin")
Ocean has lent his pipes to songs by MellowHype and Domo Genesis, but his strongest Odd Future collaboration remains this creepy-crawley cut alongside the Wolf Gang alpha, Tyler, The Creator. Synth stabs and Tyler's monotone flow are juxtaposed with Ocean's sweet but exhausted voice, which seems to be pleading for a reprieve from his buddy's madness.
Strawberry Swing (from "Nostalgia, Ultra")
The curtain opens on "Nostalgia, Ultra" with a reinterpretation of… a Coldplay song? But look closer: the alt-rockers' restrained stomp and swelling guitar patterns make for a pristine backdrop to Ocean's apocalyptic tale. As the singer-songwriter waves farewell to a crippled world, he takes us into a new one, where an R&B song can be grafted onto a Coldplay song and still make sense.
American Wedding (from "Nostalgia, Ultra")
The Eagles' "Hotel California" morphs into Ocean's account of a hasty marriage to a teenager that dissolves before the end of the second verse. "American Wedding" showcases the singer's willingness to stretch out thematic concepts past a normal song length, which he continued with even more dazzling panache on "Channel Orange's" "Pyramids." And if 70s guitar solos aren't your thing, be sure not to skip past the outro, in which Ocean spins a hypnotic, chest-thumping chant that's more inventive than most R&B songs that will grace the radio this year.
I Miss You (from Beyonce's "4")
Ocean co-wrote the devastating third track on Beyonce's fourth solo album, and no disrespect to the Queen B, but the song took on a new life when Ocean adopted the song as his own at select live shows. Slowing down the tempo and taking his time with nearly every syllable, the upstart singer inspired lighters to be extended when performing "I Miss You" in front of a surprised, captivated audience.
Nature Feels (from "Nostalgia, Ultra")
And here we have the oddball sex jam. Turning MGMT's "Electric Feel" into an ode to outdoor coitus would seemed natural for Ocean even if he had forgone the opening line, "I've been meaning to fuck you in the garden." The devilish fun is in the details here, like Ocean's "…Wow…" at the beginning of the second verse, and the surprisingly affecting vocal harmonies as the refrain progresses. And then the tape stops, and it's time to get ready for "Channel Orange."