With his decision to address lust for another man on his new album, “Channel Orange,” 24-year-old Frank Ocean has become something other than one of the most dynamic R&B; singers and songwriters of the last half-decade: He’s become, for the moment, one of the first to challenge a genre known for its acidic intolerance of homosexuality.
The album was highly anticipated, coming on the heels of Ocean’s critically acclaimed collection from last year, “Nostalgia, Ultra,” and the sexual content — which surfaces on two songs — has so far received fairly gentle treatment. Ocean, born Christopher Breaux, debuted a song on “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon"on Monday only hours before releasing the album on iTunes, and got a warm reception. Several stars have also offered support on Twitter and in the media, including Beyoncé and Russell Simmons.
On the new album, the young MC says “he” rather than “she” on the songs “Bad Religion” and “Forrest Gump,” and a few days after early reviewers began wondering about the lyrics, he published a note on his website spelling it out: Specifically, he fell in love with a man, and then decided to sing about it on this new album.
But the sexual themes, ultimately, are little more than a red herring — some would even say a publicity stunt, timed to draw attention to the album’s release — when it comes to the overall beauty of “Channel Orange.”
A concept album filled with as many stories and observations about modern-day Southern California life as theBeach Boys’"Surfin’ Safari” did in 1962, the album offers a vivid snapshot of the twentysomething experience in Los Angeles. Ocean is a young artist with an ear for thoughtful, brave, witty, imaginative storytelling, a strong voice and keen sense of the world in which he’s found himself. His is a city he describes in “Sweet Life” as “domesticated paradise, palm trees and pools, whatever feels good,” a new home that has changed him in ways that he outlines throughout the album.
Ocean moved to L.A. in 2005 and joined the L.A. hip-hop collective Odd Future in 2009, and also signed to Def Jam Records as a solo artist that year to record “Nostalgia, Ultra.” In early 2011, when the record sat on the label’s shelf for too long, a frustrated Ocean, who had made inroads as a songwriter and worked with Justin Bieber and John Legend, released “Nostalgia, Ultra” as a free download on his Tumblr site. It drew raves and he had a hit song with “Novacane,” a witty track about a hook-up after Coachella involving a dental assistant, and the release landed on many critics’ best of 2011 lists (including mine). He sang memorable hooks on Jay-Z and Kanye West’s album, “Watch the Throne,” where his tenor played the perfect foil in the chorus to “No Church in the Wild.” At one point Def Jam was going to finally release “Nostalgia, Ultra,” but decided against it.
Smart move. Ocean went back into the studio, and the result is a quiet, if tempestuous, storm, filled with muffled beats, whispers, perfectly placed arrangements, enough space within songs that each note is clear and present, and an overarching theme that confirms that its creator has an artistic vision that reaches beyond the gender of his desire.
On the essential “Crack Rock,” about an addict, you can hear the echo of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On.” Its quieter, more intimate moments suggest Sly and the Family Stone’s version of “Que Sera Sera” and Prince’s “Sign o’ the Times,” and Ocean’s debt to Drake’s brand of emo-R&B; is obvious on a number of tracks. Combined, you can hear a whole history. And even if Ocean’s writing could use fewer syllables and more allegiance to meter and rhyme — he crams a lot of information into his lines — with experience will come restraint.
Ocean’s album sets itself as a kind of recorded program, with hissing between-song interludes that seem to capture specific moments in Ocean’s life: a conversation with a woman driving; footsteps in a rainstorm; and pocket-shuffled snippets. These combine to create a swirl of mystery, one that Ocean describes in the first words on the album, in “Thinking About You,” in an apology to an unnamed other. “A tornado flew around my room before you came,” he confesses as he hints at tears shed. “Excuse the mess it made, it usually doesn’t rain in Southern California.”
Ocean takes us on a journey that tempers those tears, from a young man experiencing teenage (hetero) lust on “Sierra Leone” who seems confused by “tidbits of intuition that I been getting / Abandon mission, abandon mission,” to an adult reveling in the mansions of Ladera Heights, which Ocean describes as “the black Beverly Hills.”
Class tension is at the heart of “Super Rich Kids,” as well. One of the album’s best tracks, it describes a night drinking “too many bottles of wine we can’t pronounce” as a member of the uber-wealthy where “the maids come round too much” and the parents are absent. Or, as Odd Future rapper Earl Sweatshirt describes them in an amazing 16-bar rap, “the Xany-gnashing Caddy smashing” children of fortune.
And then there’s “Forrest Gump,” the song about Ocean’s pseudonymous male love interest. Set against a slow burn of a groove, the song is notable not for anything explicit or untoward. Rather, it’s a simple song about desire. Well — not simple. Very complicated, in fact. How to reveal his feelings? “I know you wouldn’t hurt a beetle / But you’re so buff and so strong. I’m nervous, Forrest. Forrest Gump.”
Thankfully, the hard part is over and we can look past a few pronouns and instead see the biggest truth about “Channel Orange” — that artistic courage can beget true change, especially when the creation beneath it tells such an engaging story.