3.5 stars (out of 4)
In the days leading up to the release of his major-label debut album, “Channel Orange” (Def Jam), R&B singer Frank Ocean announced that five years ago, when he was 19, he fell deeply in love with a man.
The announcement dropped with anvil force on the traditionally hard-edged, not-particularly-gay-friendly worlds of mainstream hip-hop and R&B. Ocean is easily the highest-profile performer in those genres to publicly come out.
Ocean was born Christopher Breaux 24 years ago in New Orleans, and is an A-list songwriter and singer who has already worked with Beyonce, Nas, Justin Bieber, John Legend, Kanye West and Jay-Z, among others. He is part of the notorious hip-hop collective Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, which has been vilified in some quarters for the violent, homophobic lyrics by some of its members. And he released a mix tape, “Nostalgia, Ultra,” in 2011 that was widely praised for its fresh take on contemporary rhythm and blues: restrained, heart-felt vocals and an air of wistful longing.
All of which made “Channel Orange” one of the year’s most anticipated releases even before Ocean’s coming-out letter. Its on-line publication sent the social-media world into a tizzy and prompted a flurry of responses, from mostly supportive celebrities, deep-thinking writers and scandalized fans (Odd Future’s Tyler the Creator was among the first to express his support for Ocean on Twitter, saying he was “proud” of “my big brother”).
Publicity gambit or not, Ocean’s coming-out letter is a work of art in itself. It doesn’t come out for gay rights, or make any grand statements about the unfairness of it all. It simply, eloquently documents an unrequited obsession – how Ocean was surprised when he found himself falling in love with another man and then crushed when his love went unreturned.
“By the time I realized I was in love, it was malignant. It was hopeless,” Ocean writes. Later, after summing up a relationship that haunts him still, he concludes, “I don’t have any secrets I need kept anymore.”
You don’t have to know who Frank Ocean is or care an iota about gay rights to appreciate the grace in the words. And in that way, Ocean’s letter does what the best art should do – create a truth so undeniable that it transcends boundaries. The same could be said of “Channel Orange.” It includes two songs addressed to a male lover, but it trivializes the album to focus on that issue in lieu of everything else “Channel Orange” encompasses.
“Bad Religion” mourns a break-up with an unnamed “he,” but Ocean’s boldness is matched by his artistry as a vocal dramatist and nuanced lyricist. Over a handful of mournful organ chords, Ocean imagines a one-sided conversation with a taxi driver. Strings support him as he rises softly to falsetto, breaks back to a near spoken-word verse (“I can’t tell you the truth about my disguise”) and collapses into despair (“It brings me to my knees”).
The poignant three-minute distillation of how it feels to lose something precious stands as the peak moment on an album set in Southern California, Ocean’s home away from home since leaving New Orleans. Despite some high-profile collaborators, including OutKast’s Andre 3000, John Mayer and Odd Future’s Earl Sweatshirt, the music isn’t particularly flashy. It’s subtle and dreamy, drifting in a wash of electronic keyboards and muted percussion. For a major-label debut, it’s surprisingly understated, at times exceedingly modest – Ocean’s name doesn’t even appear on the album cover. The hooks, the insistent melodies were more abundant on “Nostalgia, Ultra.” This album is longer than last year’s mix tape, and contains some filler. But Ocean quietly demands to be taken on his own idiosyncratic, highly individual terms, and he succeeds.
“Channel Orange” opens with nearly a minute of ambient sound, one of five snippets that break up the album’s 12 proper songs, all of which gives the whole project a deceptively casual feel. That’s in keeping with the tone of many of the songs. California is a state of mind in Ocean world: numb, deceptively luxurious and self-satisfied, where the denizens live disconnected from one another and the world. It’s an impression that sinks in over repeated listens, rather than blowing in with hurricane force.
“Thinkin’ Bout You” couldn’t be any less auspicious as an opening song, little more than a delicate, yearning falsetto vocal over vaporous keyboards and a muffled rhythm track. It’s not until the fourth track, “Sierre Leone,” that Ocean comes into view, and only then to split himself in two to create a dialogue between his self-gratifying lust and more selfless conscience.
The tension between the sacred and the secular that has informed soul albums since Ray Charles bobbed and weaved through the ‘50s courses through many of these songs, as do references to soul greats from the past – the Stevie Wonder-ish keyboards, the layered Marvin Gaye voices in constant conversation with one another, the Prince-like guitars and psychedelic-gospel inflections In the tradition of those artists, who thought not only in terms of songs but of album-length concepts and themes, “Channel Orange” creates a state of mind with words and sound.
“Sweet Life” seduces like a drug dealer, Ocean crooning over a laid-back rhythm, “the water is blue, swallow the pill.”
“Why see the world, when you got the beach?” he sings, as if describing a sun-baked prison.
Elton John’s pouncing “Bennie and the Jets” piano riff is repurposed for the yellow-brick-road emptiness of “Super Rich Kids.” Sweatshirt’s measured rapping does as much to evoke the decadence as his acute words. Amid the sun-splashed emptiness, Ocean’s voice offers a glimmer of humanity, his search for “real love” a seemingly hopeless quest.
Drugs create a tragic narrative within the album, turning loners into social dropouts, couples into dysfunctional business partners. The addict in “Crack Rock” is reduced to “smoking stoned in abandoned homes.” The narrator in “Lost” has dreams of a better life with his partner, but for now he “can’t believe I’ve got her out here cooking dope.”
These hyper-realistic narratives are balanced by the surreal leaps in “Pyramids,” which travels from ancient Egypt to a tawdry strip club, capped by a hazy, acid-rock guitar solo. That a murky, nine-minute song about time travel winds up as the centerpiece of a highly hyped major-label R&B album would be a risky move for any artist. But as Ocean demonstrated in the last week, he’s not only full of surprises but the conviction to make them resonate.
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