Frank Ocean's "Channel Orange"
Frank Ocean, "Channel Orange" (Def Jam)
In the days leading up to the release of his major-label debut album, R&B singer 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 is an A-list songwriter/singer who has worked with Beyoncé, 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 R&B: restrained, heartfelt vocals and an air of wistful longing.
Ocean's letter and album do what the best art should do -- create a truth so undeniable that it transcends boundaries. The CD includes two songs addressed to a male lover, but it trivializes the CD 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. 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.
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. The hooks, the insistent melodies were more abundant on "Nostalgia, Ultra." But Ocean quietly demands to be taken on his own idiosyncratic, highly individual terms, and he succeeds.
"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 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 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.
GREG KOT, CHICAGO TRIBUNE