I’ve been trying to pinpoint why Frank Ocean’s astonishing success is one of music’s most heartening stories in recent years. The simple answer is that we want to see talent rewarded. Too frequently the hype around a rising artist is just that, variations on I-was-there-first nonsense. If anything, Frank Ocean’s ascent has been gradual and a bit understated. He built his clout early with some songwriting credits for established hitmakers and as a member of Odd Future, a collective bursting with oversized personalities. Despite already being signed to Def Jam, Ocean self-released his debut Nostalgia, ULTRA in early 2011. The album eventually gained the attention of industry royalty and resulted in a gorgeous Beyoncé track (4’s “I Miss You”) and a star-making turn on last year’s mammoth Jay-Z and Kanye West collaboration Watch the Throne. Proof that life can be poetic: one of Ocean’s killer hooks was for a song called “Made in America.” Indeed.
One of Frank Ocean’s gifts is a rare purity; another is an equally rare modesty, which can be deceptive. Comparisons to Stevie Wonder and Prince are apt, but only to a certain extent. Ocean’s style, more than his ingenuity, matches those masters’ – for now at least. If I had to point to another artist who Ocean recalls, it would be Mary J. Blige. Like Blige, Ocean radiates compassion and warmth despite the bleak themes and broken people of his songs. Ocean is an observer, especially of woe, and the woe is often his. There’s nothing boastful or sexy about him or his music. He is the antidote to the kind of swagger and decadence albums such as, well, Watch the Throne celebrate. I suspect that’s why Channel Orange, Ocean’s first major-label album, has been met with such enthusiasm. How can you not root for this guy?
And then there’s the matter of Ocean’s sexuality. Last week (on Independence Day) Ocean published a letter on his Tumblr in which he mentions once having been in a relationship with a man. He describes the two summers they spent together:
And on the days we were together, time would glide. […] By the time I realized I was in love, it was malignant. It was hopeless. There was no escaping, no negotiating with the feeling. No choice. It was my first love. It changed my life.
The industry responded to Ocean’s candor and bravery with an outpouring of support. Let’s be clear: it was a big moment for LGBT acceptance in the predominantly homophobic world of R&B and hip hop. It was also genuinely heartbreaking.
Channel Orange was born of distraction, of Ocean’s need to create “worlds that were rosier” than his. A cursory listen of the album and its parade of drug addiction and unrequited love would suggest Ocean failed at his task. In a recent New York Times feature, Ocean described his songwriting as “an extension of [his] talk therapy.” His lyrics approach dysfunction in a sort of matter-of-fact manner that avoids preachiness, and his aching delivery communicates nothing but sympathy. When he focuses on his own pain, as he does in “Bad Religion,” the results are devastating.
Channel Orange’s scale and scope are impressive to behold. It spans time and distance – from Ancient Egypt to the modern Las Vegas strip (on “Pyramids”), from Ladera Heights (the “black Beverly Hills”) to the temples of India – and for all of its 55 minutes, it’s brilliant. Unlike Nostalgia, ULTRA, the hooks on Channel Orange are less immediate and woven into the album’s sprawl. The more you untangle, the more you’re ensnared. The “Benny and the Jets”-quarter-note piano vamp on “Bad Rich Kids” (and its Blige interpolation); the breezy swing of “Lost”; the miraculous electric-piano-driven chorus of “Sweet Life”; the drum-kit clatter of “Monks”; the naked, organ-drone confessional “Bad Religion”; the astounding two-part R&B fantasia “Pyramids”: these songs are hard to shake. Taken together, even with the bloat of intros, outros, and interludes, this group of stars forms a constellation. Forget the number of producers and contributors (most notably Earl Sweatshirt and André 3000): Channel Orange is the work of an auteur. Ignore its genre trappings (house, hip hop, rock): the album is pure soul.
“I don’t have any secrets I need kept anymore,” Ocean wrote on his Tumblr. The truth is, the post was unnecessary. He’d already outed himself on Channel Orange. Still, the album does contain one revelation: Frank Ocean. And the secret is out.