July 17, 2012 - 12:17pm
BY GUS TURNER
In the past couple weeks, no artist has been as discussed and debated as Frank Ocean. From his stunning admissions pertaining to his sexuality, to his heart-wrenching performance of “Bad Religion” on “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon,” to his decision to release his mainstream debut album, Channel Orange, a week early, Ocean has built upon his buzz in ways that are unprecedented for an artist of his stature and genre.
It all sprang from a seemingly innocuous link to his personal Tumblr blog that grew into something few, save one particularly observant reporter, could’ve foreseen. On July 4th, Frank Ocean announced to the world that his first love was not, as his music would belie, a woman but, in fact, a male friend to whom he had professed his feelings years ago at age 19. This announcement has since been seen as both manipulative (in the sense that Ocean was trying to stir controversy to boost album sales, a move that seems ridiculous given his reserved, public persona) and ground-breaking for being one of the first, high-profile black artists in R&B or rap to label his sexuality as anything but hetero (in fairness to Ocean, it’s misleading to label him as “gay,” as his admission read more like that of a sexually ambivalent man than a decided homosexual).
Certainly the news is powerful and opens doors that have long been closed in the African-American community. It shouldn’t, however, overshadow the content of Ocean’s latest album in the least bit. Not only because it speaks for itself quite ably, but also because the conditions for a story like this to come out had been trending towards favorable for a while now, and thus should lessen the impact. Consider, in the wake of President Obama’s May declaration of support for gay marriage, the hip-hop artists from all different corners of the country who expressed their support for homosexuality. It has also been out for some time now that one of Odd Future’s other, though lesser-known, members, Syd the Kyd, is an open lesbian. We are no longer at a point in American culture where news like this should define an artist. The greatest service we can do to Ocean as a person is support his right to love whomever he chooses. But the greatest service we can do to him as an artist is listen to his music and let it breathe freely of any biased or irrelevant notions about who we think he is. In this sense, Channel Orange, because of how easily it allows us to do so, couldn’t have come at a more perfect time.
Ocean undoubtedly let us into an important chapter of his life with his now-famous Tumblr post, but what that one post did, Channel Orange executes tenfold. Every song seems to come with its own distinct tale or perspective, but the album still feels carefully woven instead of cluttered, and forms a strong thread of coherency from first track to last. Its quality and arrangement is much the same as his breakthrough mixtape, Nostalgia, Ultra, rife with the clicks and clacks of video game cartridge interludes and the spare sensuality of Ocean’s voice and production. However, there are certain elements that set Channel Orange apart from its predecessor and signal Ocean’s progression as a singer and storyteller, namely the interplay between his imagery and themes.
Channel Orange works the best when it’s creating a detailed portrait of the feeling or idea that Ocean is trying to communicate. Take, for instance, the lines in “Thinking Bout You,” where Ocean sings about a tornado running through his room and beach houses in Idaho to describe unrequited love. The balancing of steak knives on “Bad Religion” is used as an analogy for the multiple lives he feels he must lead in order to feel secure with his identity. On “Super Rich Kids” and “Sweet Life”, we’re treated to stories of high-class ennui where jaded teenagers hope that their tailored suits will sprout wings as they threaten to jump off the rooftops of 60-story buildings. “Pyramids” is a sprawling epic concerned with Las Vegas-style decadence and a hooker named Cleopatra. In a moment that the nine-year-old me would call the musical highlight of forever, he name checks Majin-Buu as a metaphor for female genitalia in “Pink Matter”. Please just look at this picture for a minute and think about how awesome that is.
In order to gain the sort of artistic license that allows him to get away with ridiculous moments like this, though, Ocean has also given his listeners a lot in return. He’s unflinchingly honest with us, and provides soaring bursts of emotion that reward the listener on every song. The comparisons that have been made between his sound and that of Stevie Wonder are not unwarranted given the rhythm and passion on many of Ocean’s cuts that inspires the same toe-tapping, head-bobbing power of Stevie’s classics. Indeed, by the end of the album, it’s clear that Ocean has created a work on par with many of the R&B superstars who he grew up admiring.
Contrary to what the litany of “Frank Ocean is Gay” headlines would like you to believe, though, it’s not his sexuality that Ocean uses as a platform for success. It’s just the fact that he’s completely genuine. It’s the fact that we get a moving picture of the bare, troubled man that Ocean can be. It’s the fact that he’s simply a man who, like so many in the world, feels unloved by the one he wants it from the most. Ocean holds nothing back from us, and this alone earns a deeper appreciation for his music. This alone bears repeated listens that a nuanced work like Channel Orange, both lyrically and musically, deserves.
“I wish you could see what I see,” a girl whispers on the final track of the album. In truth, it’s funny that this is placed at the end, as opposed to the beginning, after Ocean has been nearly stripped to the bone of his emotions and secrets. By the end of Channel Orange, we don’t have to hope that he’ll show us anything else. We’ve already seen it all.