On the eve of the release of his major-label debut, hip-hopper Frank Ocean admitted he was once in love with another man. You better believe that garnered headlines. After all, the 24-year-old works in a male-based genre built on braggadocio and macho posturing, plus he's pals with swaggering rap royals Kanye West and Jay-Z, fellas who've never been shy about touting their female conquests.
The buzz only got buzzier: Ocean fully references his romantic proclivities on Channel Orange, a trippy, intriguing album, not to mention an auspicious how-do-you-do. As it turns out, men and women are objects of his wandering affections, an admission that, it should be noted, was nevertheless received in hip-hopdom with overwhelming acceptance.
But that's not close to being the most interesting thing about Channel Orange, which opened earlier this month at No. 2 on the charts. Ocean's voice is a high-low shape-shifter, a seductive marvel. His music follows the same twisting route, influences ranging from Prince (the paisley heat of Sierra Leone references "Trojans" and "horses") to early '80s Phil Collins records (it's a quiet, lonely album with tingly production).
Ocean, a New Orleans kid born Christopher "Lonny" Breaux, has written hits for Justin Bieber and John Legend. He contributed vocals to Watch the Throne, the best-selling collaboration between Kanye and Jay-Z. Alone, his style is confessional, quirky, quietly dramatic, as if the entirety of Channel Orange were written and recorded at 3 a.m. in a sad hotel. If Kanye could sing like this, they'd be artistic twins, guys not afraid to let every thought in their overactive heads tumble out of their mouths.
Ocean is well aware of the hype and drama surrounding him, and there's a reason that old-school soul track Forrest Gump is Channel Orange's big-finish track. On it he sings: "You're so buff and so strong / I'm nervous, Forrest." Adding, later: "I'm remembering you / This is love I know it's true / I won't forget you." On the song's surface, Ocean takes the place of the iconic movie's Jenny pining for the man who worships her; underneath, it is a sweet reminiscence laced with church organ, blues guitar and solemn synth. Marvin Gaye would be proud.
If you take care of the bisexual hullabaloo first, you can better concentrate on how the album truly shines. A few special guests show up to help: Neptunes producer Pharrell Williams, OutKast's Andre 3000, guitarist John Mayer. But let it be known this is Ocean's baby all the way. On Bad Religion, the singer treats a Middle Eastern taxi driver as his shrink; in a great self-aware twist, the cabbie curses in a foreign tongue when Ocean won't shut up. Monks, on which a lady receives Ocean's sexual healing, has an upbeat acid-jazz burn and a whole lot of wild, weird lyrics.
After being mostly cheered for his candor — including by rap tough guy 50 Cent — Ocean is now facing boobirds who claim he's using his admission to sell records. But that will eventually die down, just another Twitter trend with the shelf life of an opened jar of mayonnaise. Instead, like all enlightening works of art, Channel Orange will soon soar on its own robust merits. Ultimately, the album is not about sexuality but universal sensuality and one man's desire to speak his mind and heart.
Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.