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.
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.