Frank Ocean’s career as an R&B vocalist began in New Orleans, Louisiana. After the destruction of Hurricane Katrina, Ocean moved to Los Angeles in pursuit of his music career. It was in Los Angeles that he began writing music for notable artists such as John Legend and Brandy. He became affiliated with the outlandish, L.A.-based hip-hop crew, Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All. The Odd Future crew, led by their leader, Tyler the Creator, have garnered a large underground following over the last few years, due to their confrontational subject matter, appalling lyrics, and crude sense of humor.
In February 2011, Ocean broke out on his own with the Nostalgia, Ultra mixtape, issued through his blog. Later in the year, he appeared on Tyler the Creator’s Goblin (“She,” “Window”), Beyonce’s 4 (“I Miss You”), and Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch The Throne (“No Church in the Wild,” “Made in America”). Def Jam’s plan for the release of Nostalgia, Lite — an EP-length version of the mixtape — was scrapped, yet the songs “Novacane” and “Swim Good” were released as singles with accompanying videos. By the end of the year, several publications listed Nostalgia, Ultra as one of 2011′s best releases, despite not being an official album.
In the days leading up to the release of his Def Jam debut album, channel ORANGE, 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.
In a hip-hop collective (Odd Future) often lambasted by critics for its homophobic lyrics (particularly those of its founder Tyler the Creator), Ocean seems very out of place.
However, one listen to channel ORANGE makes it obvious that Ocean is as free as an artist as he is as a man. The album doesn’t have as many slyly powerful hooks as Nostalgia, Ultra (“Novacane” comes to mind), but Ocean’s descriptive and subtle storytelling is taken to a higher level. channel ORANGE feels like one long, moonlit, air-conditioned ride. Songs ease from one to the next, flowing together with ambient pieces of distant movie dialogue and the sound of electronics turning on and off. The album 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.
When looking at Ocean’s lyrics, they imply bisexuality as opposed to a stated preference either way. His vocals are often purposefully ambiguous, such as on the single “Thinkin Bout You,” a song which channels both Prince and D’Angelo.
Ocean is a subtle storyteller, with a social consciousness that surfaces in heartbreaking detail, found in songs such as “Sierra Leone,” where he is the cash-strapped father who sings his infant daughter to sleep while thinking, and “Crack Rock,” where he finds himself coping with drug addiction.
The most personal song is “Bad Religion,” a phenomenal brokenhearted ballad consisting of organ, piano, strings, and handclaps. The song mourns a break-up with an unnamed “he,” but Ocean’s boldness is matched by his artistry as a vocal dramatist and nuanced lyricist.
It wouldn’t be an Odd Future album without some songs that are purely for their own amusement. “Super Rich Kids” featuring Earl Sweatshirt is one such track, backed with a pounding bass/piano combination and held together by Ocean interpolating “Real Love” by Mary J. Blige.
The music on channel ORANGE incorporates several musical genres, including elements of 70s funk, 80s electro, and moody, downtempo hip-hop. Ocean is a free-form singer who doesn’t necessarily believe in rhymes and often doesn’t even seem to have a point, just wandering over the lush beats wherever his stream-of-consciousness takes him.
“Forrest Gump” is probably the song that most directly deals with his feelings toward men, although some self-described geniuses have tried to interpret his vocals as seeing Forrest through his girl Jenny’s eyes. Most people are probably not buying that notion.
At the end of the day, gay or straight, all that really matters is his music, and channel ORANGE is filled with brave music. Ocean’s revelation of his bi-sexuality has been met in public with both admiration and suspicion, as people have lauded him for challenging hip-hop’s supposed norms while others suspect it to be nothing but a publicity stunt.
Publicity gamble 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 love. The question isn’t who Frank Ocean loves. It’s how he loves: ardently, recklessly, yet knowingly.
Album Score – 8/10