Frank Ocean's debut album, Channel Orange is a refreshing departure from the droll orthodoxy of recent pop/R&B/soul music.
The album, which broke the Internet after its early online release Monday night, will be many music fans' introduction to Frank Ocean, one part of the controversial, genre-twisting rap collective Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All (Odd Future, for short). And it will not disappoint those who take the time to light a candle, some insence and whatever else they enjoy, and sit back to listen to this groundbreaking LP straight through.
The album, which kicks off Frank Ocean's Channel Orange Tour, is a major departure from the pop-music formula of the last decade or so, in which a beatmaker and top-line producer creates a loose track for someone like Katy Perry or Beyonce to sing and sell as a money-making jam.
Instead, Frank Ocean has gone back to the basics, creating an LP of moving, emotional, varied songs that show real soul, and a dedication to exploring music in a way that has been lacking in mainstream, popular R&B/soul/neo-soul since the heydays of Erykah Badu and D'Angelo. And there are even actual people playing actual instruments!
Not everyone will enjoy Frank Ocean's singing style -- which peaks into falsetto more often than even Al Green's -- but many will, and it can't be denied that he's experimenting, breaking personal boundaries, pouring himself into a fully-realized artistic statement aimed at expressing himself creatively, not simply stacking paper.
In this way, Channel Orange is much like Kanye West's 2010 fifth album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which represented his evolution from a pompous rapper and exceptionally-talented producer into a true artist. Much of the sonic soundscape in Channel Orange owes a debt to that Kanye breakthrough, but Ocean takes it 20 steps further, abandoning the booming bravado West relies on to attract an audience, and instead just going with what feels right.
That's what makes Frank Ocean who he is, as far as we can ascertain in our brief introduction to him so far. It's his seeming dedication to love, creativity and music, rather than the impression he makes on others, that has had him selling out shows across America since before he even dropped his first solo piece.
He's the first hip-hop musician anyone can recall to come out of the closet of his own volition, and he's getting basically no flack for it. He's Frank Ocean, he's bisexual, his first lover at 19 years old was another man, and we don't care, or at least his fans don't.
He's the new generation of music, along with fellow Odd Future mates including Earl Sweatshirt and Tyler the Creator, who was slammed for using the gay slur f----t dozens of times in his music. No matter again to his bisexual friend or his fans -- they understand they are in a post-all-of-that era, that in fact they are some of the most visible artists in the new vanguard.
And Frank Ocean, a 24-year-old New Orleans native, is using that popularity to speak his mind and tell the tale of his generation. He touches on a wide range of topics on his first release, from drugs and dejection to weed and wealth. It's difficult nowadays in popular music to find the type of emotional rawness he packs into this debut LP. You'd have to go back a little further to find this type of cracked-voice pain and social consciousness, back to someone like Marvin Gaye, a photo of whom is the background for Frank Ocean's official Twitter account.
The track Super Rich Kids is one of the gems on Channel Orange, and it continues in the twisted, bipolar psychology that Odd Future listeners have grown to expect from the collective. But it is written with sweetness and self-awareness -- rather than anger, intellectual fapping or crass humor -- at heart, and it illustrates what it likely is like to be a fledgling star in a world that rewards fame with trappings that degrade and break down the bonds that make us human.
In the song's pre-chorus, Ocean laments Too many bottles of this wine we can't pronounce / Too many bowls of green, no Lucky Charms / The maid comes around too much, parents ain't around enough / Too many joy rides in daddy's Jaguar / Too many white lies and white lines / Super rich kids with nothing but loose ends / Super rich kids with but nothing but fake friends.
And then he hits the chorus, repeating like a chant a lyric string reminiscent of Stevie Wonder's Lookin' for Another Pure Love. It's simplicity makes it that much more powerful, especially coming off such a bleak portrait of the pain of being lonely even in the lap of luxury:
Real love / I'm searching for a real love, he croons.
And after listening to Channel Orange, you've felt his quest in all its glory for yourself. It's a search that consumes.