Frank Ocean isn’t a household name yet, but there are a few things you should know about him. He’s a member of one of hip-hop’s hottest and most controversial collectives Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, also known as OFWGKTA or, more succinctly, Odd Future. He was featured on Kanye West and Jay-Z’s critically acclaimed album Watch the Throne. He has written tracks for Justin Bieber, John Legend and Brandy under his given name of Christopher “Lonny” Breaux. He’s a poster child of the free music generation—he gave away his impressive debut mixtape, Nostalgia, Ultra, via his Tumblr after feeling ignored by his label, Island Def Jam.
He is gay, or perhaps bisexual—which might seem irrelevant except that he just came out on July 4, via his Tumblr, telling the world that his first love was a man. Afterward, Jay-Z, Beyonce and Russell Simmons all voiced their encouragement of the young star; even Tyler the Creator, the notoriously ersatz leader of Odd Future, gave his friend a tweet of support. In a hip-hop world that is not known for being particularly inclusive of homosexuality, this is big news.
Given that Ocean’s announcement came a week before his new album dropped, it could be viewed as a publicity stunt. It may well be. But by coming out, Ocean also gives Channel Orange a context in which his heart-wrenching lyrics and despondent songs draw attention to his struggle with identity, sexuality and encroaching fame. The lyrics elevate the album from being just another above-average R&B record to a brilliant release sure to top many “Best of” lists.
The highly anticipated new album features Ocean’s emotionally rich, hook-filled tracks along with clever collaborations with Earl Sweatshirt, John Mayer and André 3000, all topped off with his ten-minute R&B opus “Pyramids.” On Channel Orange Ocean crafts pure R&B, firmly distancing himself from the angry teenage hip-hop of Odd Future and even from his work on Watch the Throne. While R&B artists such as Usher and Chris Brown have started to incorporate the influence of electronic dance music into their songs, Ocean remains resolute in his idiosyncratic style, while still bringing to mind old Usher, The-Dream and even Maxwell. The tracks bounce between sultry slow jams like “White,” with John Mayer and “Pink Matter” (which puts André 3000 of OutKast fame to good use solidifying the chorus with his fast rhyming) to the poignant hymn “Bad Religion” to the whistle-laden track “Forrest Gump.” Ocean has a flair for crafting gripping songs and this album does not lack melodrama, featuring haunting melodies paired with driving beats and touching lyrics similar to the elusive brilliance of The-Dream’s Love Hate.
The album’s first single, “Pyramids,” is in and of itself a tour de force. The track is a ten-minute history of R&B, arcing from club thumping beats to a sultry drawn out jam with Ocean’s voice veering from a velvety croon to an endearingly creaky falsetto. The beats alternate between spacey and sexy; driving and drawn out. Despite the length of the song, the track easily holds your attention.
The album is a mature album, especially from one so young. The fact that no two songs sound alike show a virtuoso on the rise. The lyrics reveal a self-awareness that comes with maturity, but also show a young man in flux. On “The Sweet Life,” Ocean seemingly shakes his head at those tied to the fripperies of wealth, “Why see the world/ When you’ve got the beach?” he asks rhetorically, expressing his dismay with people living intentionally insulated lives. While the track was co-written with Pharrell Williams, it seems deeply personal to Ocean, who grew up in New Orleans and now lives in Beverly Hills, as the issue of the trappings of money and class disparities show up again and again on the album. On the bluntly named track “Super Rich Kids,” he sings, “Too many rich kids with nothing but fake friends,” exploring his discomfort around the titular rich kids. The track, which is his joint effort with his Odd Future bandmate Earl Sweatshirt, is a stand out, tying together the album’s two themes of class and love. Ocean chides, “The maids come around too much/ parents ain’t around enough” while the chorus pleads that he is “searching for a real love,” which can’t be found in a world of wealth. Ocean structures his narratives cleverly, tying together the album’s outros and intros with samples of organs, waves and tape deck sounds along with spoken interludes that focus on money and jobs. Ocean used a similar technique on Nostalgia, Ultra, but he’s mastered it here.
Debating class, money and love on an R&B album is heady stuff for a 24 year-old who is growing up in the spotlight and in the generation of Internet oversharers who live their lives on Tumblr and Twitter. The strain of finding fame and fortune at a young age seems to be taking a toll on Ocean, as many of the tracks on the album are infused with a deep melancholy. On “Bad Religion” Ocean sings, “Taxi driver be my shrink for the hour/ leave the meter running / it’s rush hour so take the streets if you wanna/ just outrun the demons could you.” In the context of Ocean’s recent statement about his sexuality, it’s hard not to read the lyrics as a young man struggling to find solace. Hopefully coming out about his sexuality and moving on, will free him. But as Elton John says, sad songs say so much. When Ocean sings, “I can never make them love me” it sounds like a challenge and it seems clear that he’s up to it.