Frank Ocean's phone buzzes – it's an automated message urging him to set a voicemail password. He frowns, "Who uses voicemail?" In a few ways, the singer-songwriter is emblematic of his generation: At 23, he prefers texting to voicemail, is part of the parent-scaring Odd Future crew and sees genre distinctions as antiquated. His February mixtape, nostalgia, Ultra, jumbles outré, synthy soul with Coldplay and "Hotel California" samples.
In person, Ocean is soft-spoken, quick to share his love of Japanimation classic Dragon Ball Z and dressed unassumingly in a rumpled black army jacket. Despite his age, he says he's an old soul: He owns vintage typewriters and is souping up a 1989 BMW. He got his start writing songs for John Legend and Justin Bieber, and since he landed a surprise hit with his own Eighties-inflected "Novacane," he's worked with Beyoncé, Jay-Z and Kanye.
Ocean describes his solo debut, currently under way, as 'Ye-grade ambitious, stocked with gospel sections and string parts. "I'm trying to keep it real expensive," he says, grinning. What distinguishes Ocean, besides unfussy phrasing and sonic expansiveness, is his imagination: His songs are full of fantastic vignettes involving spaceships, indoor tornadoes and hippie-ish outdoor sex. He's a fan of Stanley Kubrick and Steven Soderbergh. "If I can do in music what they did in movies, tell those kinds of stories? That's what I want to do," he says.
This story is from the November 10, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone.