Frank Ocean – review

Listen to Music

Pop years are a bit like dog years, shorter than most other time frames.

More probably happens in six months in music than in most other human endeavours, save the tech sector and international relations. By any calculation, these Frank Ocean gigs – two sold-out capital shows and a slot at Wireless festival – have been a long time coming.

The last time Ocean played in London it was 2011 and he was an enigmatic affiliate of bratty LA rap crew Odd Future, the sultry-voiced curveball in their attention-seeking games. The venue was a cramped basement in east London, and Ocean had only released a free-to-download solo mixtape called Nostalgia, Ultra to frissons of pleasure among the cognoscenti.

Two of those Nostalgia, Ultra tracks remain among the giddiest highs this evening, where the crowd now numbers nearly 5,000 ("There's a lot of you motherfuckers here," Ocean notes, wonderingly, at one point). Two songs in, Novacane is an analysis of emotional numbness screamed back by the crowd that ends on a fierce coda. This time, instead of a couple of machines, Ocean brings a band with him, all in suits, whose bearded, long-haired guitarist looks like a lounge lizard but plays like a dream. Later, Ocean sings Swim Good a cappella, one of those shivery moments where the singer is virtually drowned out by the crowd. There are horns, too, adding golden flashes to a majority of tracks.

The 25-year-old, born in California and raised in New Orleans, has been on a steep upward trajectory. Hurricane Katrina demolished his studio and sent him back west, where the man then known as Christopher "Lonny" Breaux worked as a backroom tune merchant before recalibrating his priorities. Two years on from his UK debut, Ocean is now the polisher of two Grammys; the author of a further studio album, Channel Orange, which was voted the best of 2012 in many quarters; a ground-breaker – having discussed his love affair with another man; and the deployer of thunder-stealing guest vocals on tracks by Kanye West and Jay-Z. Ocean's most recent assist – on Jay-Z's Oceans – is so terrific I can't help but feel let down that he doesn't smuggle it into the set somehow.

There aren't really many other let-downs tonight. The sound booming around the room is echoey, often swamping Ocean's versatile voice. So does the incessant shrieking, an occupational hazard of getting several thousand overexcited converts (male, female, straight, not, all hues) together under a high ceiling. It's an issue because Ocean has the range of a soul great, the swagger of an R&B bad boy, the ear of a rapper – not to mention the intellect of an artist who hates being pigeonholed – and he deserves to be heard.

The intricacies of two new songs remain something of a mystery. Debuted in Munich last month, the promising Feel California opens with a warm vocal melody about ease and sunshine, and an unassuming backing. Later in the set, Anything for You feels even more straightforward, a love song with just guitar as accompaniment. Their undercurrents will doubtless be revealed in time.

There is, of course, no schedule as far as Ocean is concerned. Having gained the upper hand with his record label, Def Jam, after he released Nostalgia, Ultra without its say-so, he is in the midst of a self-funded global jaunt – the bafflingly titled You're Not Dead tour – which, according to the singer's Tumblr, isn't formally supporting a release. He's writing and interspersing that solitude with the roar of crowds. The author of Pyramids wanted to go to Egypt as well, but civil unrest there has rerouted his itinerary. Announced by its nagging synth hook, Pyramids is greeted like a hit, despite not actually being a chart hit (No 129 in the UK).

He is, he says, taking the opportunity to take pictures of clouds from aircraft. Clouds figure significantly tonight, like water does in Ocean's work. When we're not watching a video of a yellow BMW rolling endlessly across salt flats (Ocean also really likes vintage Beemers), the backdrop is all blue skies and fluffy clouds. His trousers, too, at first seem to be a blue-black camouflage pattern, but on later inspection feature skies peppered with black storm clouds. (For reasons not quite explained, photographers were not allowed into Tuesday's gig, so the image accompanying this review is from another show.)

The trousers are no accident. As the excellent Sweet Life and Super Rich Kids attest, Ocean is a great observer of the sunny uplands of leisured youth. But he's even better at bad internal weather. Bad Religion, in which he confesses his heartbreak to a Muslim taxi driver, is one of those performances where time actually seems to slow down.

Powered by article was written by Kitty Empire, for The Observer on Sunday 14th July 2013 00.05 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010