Breaking R&B’s age-old Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, Frank Ocean came out this month not with a major statement, but with a story. Addressing speculation triggered by several songs from his debut album, Channel Orange, the 24-year-old singer took to Tumblr and resisted clear labels like “gay” or “bisexual” as he recounted his first love, a one-way emotional affair with a straight friend incapable of reciprocating. Like many of Ocean’s songs, the story was emotionally vivid and detail-rich, simultaneously poetic and plainspoken, and it’s mirrored by Channel Orange’s most moving track. On “Bad Religion,” the singer confides his heartbreak to a cab driver across a considerable language barrier. “This unrequited love, to me it’s nothing but a one-man cult,” he whimpers. “I could never make him love me.”
Unattainable love isn’t Ocean’s only concern on Channel Orange, though it’s a major one. In a casual croon that sometimes gives way to a strained falsetto, he narrates a series of J.D. Salinger-esque, first-person vignettes about spoiled socialites, desperate junkies, co-dependent pimps, and disillusioned romantics—disparate characters all linked by their failed efforts to forge meaningful connections. Channel Orange jumps from one big topic to the next, musing on addiction, privilege, history, spirituality, and anything else weighing on Ocean’s restless mind, and its arrangements bend accordingly, shifting from the sun-baked lounge of “Sweet Life” to the “Benny And The Jets” bop of “Super Rich Kids,” and eventually to the proggy electro-funk of the 10-minute album centerpiece “Pyramids.” Though those audacious swings could easily be jarring, Channel Orange is so arrestingly smooth that all of its unusually shaped pieces fit together as a seamless whole.
Between his Def Jam signing, his songwriting credits for Justin Bieber and Beyoncé, and his spotlight turns on Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch The Throne, Ocean has been groomed for conventional R&B stardom, yet Channel Orange doesn’t give off even the faintest whiff of commercial aspiration. Snubbing nearly every contemporary radio trend, it positions itself instead as the latest in a line of revelatory, late-period neo-soul albums, channeling the skewed jazz of Bilal’s Airtight’s Revenge, the impish sprawl of Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah Part Two, and the dovelike grace of Maxwell’s BLACKsummers’night into a work that’s every bit as exquisitely individualistic as all three. Ocean’s 2011 mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra introduced a slick songwriter with an amiable presence and a gift for twisting words, but nothing on it hinted at this level of finesse. It’s a testament to how assured Ocean’s debut album is that it makes even the groundbreaking coming-out story surrounding it feel like a mere footnote.