In the course of about a week, Frank Ocean has gone from relative background member of L.A. rap collective Odd Future to the world’s most famous R&B singer. And the reason? Well, in case you don’t know already, we’ll get to that later. First, let’s start with Ocean’s just-released debut album, Channel Orange, which is the real reason why his should be the first name on everyone’s lips right now.
The highly anticipated Channel Orange has come at a perfect time; much of mainstream R&B music feels manufactured, uninspiring, and stale. Electronic sounds are pretty much what’s prevailing over the radio right now, but no one is doing anything original with them, choosing instead to recycle the same formulas that have created the hit songs of summers past. It is for this reason that Channel Orange feels like the ideal cure to summer song boredom. The album harkens back to a classic era of early 70s melodies (think Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye), but still takes chances and is fresh and exciting enough to feel shiny and new.
Ocean commences the 55-minute long epic with “Start,” a short intro of static-y noise and silence. When you hear the familiar, melodic ‘ding’ of a MacBook, the background noise doesn’t feel accidental; it serves as a clue that the 24-year-old Ocean is representative of a new type of soul singer, a young man who is clearly charting his own course. “Thinkin Bout You” is a song that everyone has heard before, yet it is as gorgeous as ever, the perfect showcase for Ocean’s inspired falsetto. “Do you not think that far ahead?” he sings. “‘Cause I’ve been thinking bout forever.” The song sets the tone for the themes that Channel Orange is about to explore: mainly love, sex, longing, and everything in between.
Throughout the album’s seventeen tracks, Ocean tells a very modern story. Set in the Hollywood Hills, he weaves sordid tales of money, fame, and excess. However, unlike many young rap/R&B stars, Ocean does little in the way of bragging. While there is an over-arching sense of luxury– you will hear words like ‘diamonds’ and ‘cashmere’ more than one– this isn’t vapid, “look at me and all my money” type of music. Instead, Ocean takes a far more mature route, staying true to his reality while still managing to peel back its layers and reveal its complexity. This is never as true as on the aptly titled “Super Rich Kids,” which reunites Ocean with his OFWGKTA member (and banished juvenile delinquent) Earl Sweatshirt. The slow jam almost evokes empathy when Ocean sings “super rich kids with nothing but loose ends/super rich kids with nothing but fake friends,” and then adds, “I’m searching for real love.”
It’s fitting, because searching for real love is mainly what Channel Ocean is all about. Of course, this brings me to my earlier point: Frank Ocean’s headline-grabbing declaration that has so quickly thrust him into the spotlight. When he posted a vague but quite telling letter on his Tumblr last week, Ocean became the first hip-hop star to officially acknowledge that he is anything other than a red-blooded, heterosexual male. By admitting that he had been in love with another man, Ocean faced both support and criticism, particularly from those who believed that it was all just a PR stunt in order to generate buzz for his new album. Whatever the reasons may be, the statement feels unbelievably important.
Maybe Ocean wanted to clarify things before people heard Channel Orange, because you can’t miss the blatant references to his sexuality on songs like “Thinkin Bout You,” “Bad Religion,” and “Forrest Gump.” At a time in history when so many celebrities are choosing to subtly sneak out of the closet rather than boldly come out with magazine covers and interviews, hip-hop is still the one arena of entertainment that feels like uncharted territory. Whether it be right or wrong, the genre has been predominantly dedicated to violence, chasing women, and yes, often homophobia; ironically, Ocean’s own group is one of its worst offenders. But a slew of the game’s major players have stepped forward to acknowledge Ocean’s bravery, including Odd Future leader Tyler, the Creator. And yeah, when a person feels comfortable enough to purposefully reveal such a private aspect of who he is, that’s definitely a brave move.
But Channel Ocean is so much more than just the debut album of rap’s first openly gay artist. All you’ll be thinking when you listen to songs like “Sweet Life” and “Pyramids”– the latter of which is a crazy-cool experimental mix of R&B, dance, electronics and synths– is what a gifted writer and vocalist Ocean truly is. Frank Ocean doesn’t need to hide behind anything, but neither does his music; and that’s what is truly brave.
4.5 / 5 bars