The question isn’t who Frank Ocean loves. It’s how he loves: ardently, recklessly, yet knowingly, with a young man’s headlong passion and a mordant wisdom beyond his years. Ocean made headlines when he revealed on his Tumblr that his first love had been a man; his laments for that doomed romance are all over Channel Orange, his first official album. In “Bad Religion,” the LP’s shuddering centerpiece, Ocean sings: “This unrequited love/To me it’s nothing but/A one-man cult/And cyanide in my styrofoam cup/I could never make him love me.” There are echoes of soul forbears in Ocean’s music – Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Sly Stone, Prince – but his feel for romantic tragedy, unfurling in slow-boiling ballads, links him to an older tradition. He is a torch singer.
He’s also his own man, a distinctive voice with no real analogue in R&B, or anywhere else in today’s pop. Like his rapper comrades in the Odd Future collective, Ocean writes with a precise sense of place: His tales are laid in decadent, sun-dazzled L.A., a landscape teeming with privileged slackers (“Super rich kids with nothing but loose ends/Super rich kids with nothing but fake friends”), unemployed guys mooching off their stripper girlfriends (“Pyramids”), lovelorn sadsacks who pour out their hearts to Muslim cab drivers (“Bad Religion”). He’s a subtle storyteller, with a social consciousness that surfaces in heartbreaking details: the cash-strapped father in “Sierra Leone” who sings his infant daughter to sleep while thinking, “Baby girl, if you knew what I know,” the addict in “Crack Rock” whose family has “stopped inviting you to things/Won’t let you hold their infant.” The music touches on Seventies funk, Eighties electro, and moody, downtempo hip-hop; there are chord changes straight out of Wonder’s Innervisions, airy vamps that nod to Gaye’s Here, My Dear, snarling guitars that recall Prince’s Purple Rain. In “Pink Matter” (which features a guest verse by Andre 3000), Ocean fuses these sounds into a gorgeous, bluesy lament that takes in sex, betrayal, Japanese manga cartoons, extraterrestrials, and philosophical conundrums. “What do you think my brain is made for?” Ocean sings. “Is it just a container for the mind?/This great gray matter.”
Slackness and self-indulgence seep in. Sometimes, Ocean is less a songwriter than a purveyor of formless grooves; his lyrics, which at their best whiplash from the mundane to the metaphysical, dissolve occasionally into New Agey goop. (“Feet covered in cut flowers/They mosh for enlightenment/Clean chakra good karma.”) Like his “progressive R&B” fellow traveler The Weeknd, Ocean has some hippie in him, and Channel Orange may be best absorbed with an ice blue bong close at hand.
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But when Ocean reins himself in, tucking his words and melodies into tighter verse-chorus structures, the songs have startling force. “You know you were my first time, a new feel/It won’t ever get old, not in my soul … Do you think about me still? … ‘Cause I been thinkin’ ’bout forever.” Ocean sings those lines in the woozy “Thinkin Bout You,” his falsetto rippling over murmuring electronic percussion. It’s a bisexual black bohemian New Orleanian-turned-Angeleno’s avant-R&B torch ballad. And, of course, it’s just a love song – an anthem for anyone, anywhere, who’s found love, and lost it.