How Frank Ocean Reimagined R&B

Pop, jazz, and classical.
July 17 2012 7:30 AM

Ocean’s Kingdom

Frank Ocean reimagines R&B on his brilliant debut album.

Singer Frank Ocean performs onstage at the 2012 Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival held at The Empire Polo Field on April 13, 2012 in Indio, California.
Frank Ocean's debut album, Channel Orange, comes on the heels of his revealing Tumblr post

Photo by Karl Walter/Getty Images for Coachella.

Of the many places mentioned on Frank Ocean’s adventurous debut album, Channel Orange—Egypt, California, Denver, Sierra Leone, Miami, Amsterdam, India, Arkansas, Spain, Idaho—perhaps the most significant is the one not named: the Internet. It’s hard to imagine Ocean, an enigmatic soul hiding inside that all-American stage name, existing prior to this wide open space of online confessionals and file sharing, where a free-roaming mixtape—2011’s Nostalgia, Ultra—might earn you buzz; a 10-minute “single” like “Pyramids” needn’t worry about having room to swim; and a thinking, feeling person can offer his thoughts and feelings in raw, uncut form for all the world to see.

I’m not just thinking of his music, of course, but of the open letter that Ocean—born Christopher Breaux in 1987—posted on his Tumblr earlier this month, revealing that his first love had been a man. By doing so, he guaranteed that Channel Orange would become an intensely scrutinized piece of work: Despite hip-hop’s self-avowed open-mindedness, few moments in the genre’s recent history have been so suddenly paradigm-shifting. Support arrived swiftly from Russell Simmons and past Ocean collaborators like Jay-Z, Kanye West, Beyoncé—even the gleefully un-P.C. Odd Future. Cynics decried it as a publicity stunt, but one is hard-pressed to recall the last time an all-caps embrace of fluid sexual identity catapulted a Def Jam release up the charts. Such openness on Ocean’s part could easily have backfired—just consider all the homophobic tweets his letter received in reply.

Whatever the reason for its timing, Ocean’s online missive provided a fascinating preface to Channel Orange. In the few days between the letter’s appearance and the album’s arrival, the songs he had already released took on new meanings. The vagueness of “We All Try”—wherein Ocean declares that marriage should be “between love and love” rather than man and woman—and “Thinkin’ Bout You”—pronoun-free, except for an exclamatory “boy”—seemed more intentional than before. The light cynicism of “American Wedding” took on a more condemnatory cast. And one of his lines from Odd FuturesOldie—“I’m hi/ high and I’m bye/ bi, wait I mean I’m straight”—now seemed like a remarkable joke that very few people got, as though our understanding of multi-entendre homophones had for some reason stopped short of the obvious.

In his Tumblr post, Ocean wrote about how his mind contorted to process this new love—this man—only he couldn’t. The anthems had not yet been written. “I reminisced about the sentimental songs I enjoyed when I was a teenager,” he said, “the ones I played when I experienced a girlfriend for the first time. I realized they were written in a language I did not yet speak.” Still, there are moments on Channel Orange when the old, familiar languages suffice. A pilfered line from Mary J. Blige’s “Real Love” momentarily lifts “Super Rich Kids” from its idle haze, while on the back page of the CD booklet Ocean’s outfit calls to mind no one so much as Richie Tenenbaum. It’s an album crafted in the image, at least, of what came before: from the sunny keyboard cheer of N.E.R.D. to floaty ballads that drag forward at a heartbeat’s pace; from carefree bits of 1980s yacht funk to Radiohead-style tunes translated into minimal R&B (the terrific “Pink Matter”).

What would it have been like to listen to all this before that open letter sent us seeking out moments of cloaked biography? I have no idea. Ocean first established himself as a songwriter for people like Justin Bieber and John Legend, and there are certainly moments on his own debut when all the verses about love and sex and pain and sacrifice feel as inoffensively mainstream as something by one of his past clients. But there’s a difference between the purposeful ambiguities of a good love song—a time-worn trick of pop music—and keeping the details to oneself. Channel Orange frequently tends toward the latter: It is a strange and occasionally baffling record that feels intensely personal—almost impenetrably so. Pronouncements about unrequited feelings or bouts of terminal loneliness—things any of us might relate to—dissolve into dead-end rhymes, Dragonball references, pillow talk, inside-jokes, and snippets of conversation with no context.

And while a sense of open-hearted discovery courses through the record, it’s rarely clear where precisely Ocean positions himself, which persona—the heartbreaker or the one left behind, the pusher or the addict, the hell-raiser or the moralist—he claims as his own. The album proceeds like a series of estranged couplets: “Thinkin’ Bout You,” the gorgeous, oozing postmortem of a relationship that never made it to “forever,” offers a stark contrast to the euphoric “Sierra Leone,” about a pair of lovers sweaty and blissful from “spending too much time alone.” The “domesticated paradise” and joyous, suburban privilege of “Sweet Life”—“So why see the world/ When you got the beach?”—feels naively untroubled until the Less Than Zero-esque, permanently Xanax’d “Super Rich Kids” burns it down. “Pilot Jones” aspires to stay high forever, while “Crack Rock” is the tragically quotidian comedown. The barefoot, hippie mirth of “Monks” crashes into the dispirited anti-gospel of “Bad Religion.”

The point, it seems, is to explore possibilities and gradients of feeling, rather than seek a resolution. Throughout Channel Orange, between the declarations of love and loss, there are fleeting moments of ambivalence. The singer does not sound numb so much as unsure of how to feel. “Forrest Gump” reads like an addendum to his Tumblr letter—and yet it’s a disarmingly upbeat track. “My god she’s giving me/ Pleasure,” he cries on “Pink Matter,” seemingly uncertain of how to process the moment. And rather than make this uncertainty central to his songs, Ocean quickly fades into the background. We may seek out the songwriter in his lyrics, but he prefers to disappear behind scattered observations and shards of story.

Ultimately, though, Channel Orange isn’t an act of sentimental escape so much as an attempt to create a new world—one beyond fixed, reliable narrators and either/or propositions. This becomes clearest on the stunning, 10-minute “Pyramids,” which time-travels from antiquity to the strip club, from soaring psychedelia to an epic slow jam, Cleopatra the first to Cleopatra in “six-inch heels,” with pride and dignity the threads that align past and present. It’s a wondrous, slippery song: Ancient Cleopatra abandons her empire, evades a search party and then runs off the pages of history altogether. She ends up in the present—reincarnated perhaps, dancing most nights to bankroll her man’s minor, “top-floor motel-suite” dreams.

The whole album partakes of this roving spirit. It’s about a place that does not yet exist, latter-day pyramids being built by new devotees and fellow travelers, on blogs and in comments sections from YouTube to YouKu, where kids from New Orleans to China whose instincts are guided by no context debate the social construction of gender and the proper translation ofswag.” Frank Ocean’s online coming-out has changed hip-hop, but the real power of Channel Orange comes from his imagination, not his biography.

Hua Hsu teaches in the English department at Vassar College and is completing his first book, A Floating Chinaman.