Just before Channel Orange’s release, Frank Ocean announced his homosexuality in a note posted on his Tumblr. Like a crashing piano, the noise of support and criticism blurted out at once. Rarely has anyone, certainly not as recognized as Ocean, come out to the largely homophobic hip hop and R&B community. The admission was powerful in its simple truth: “I don’t have any secrets I need kept anymore.”
Frank Ocean’s honesty shines throughout Channel Orange. Struggling with his love addiction (“Thinkin Bout You”), he tries to escape (“Crack Rock”). Midway through the album, he spirals out of control on a nine-minute track (“Pyramids”), and later questions life’s meanings and his place in it (“Bad Religion” and “Lost”). From start to finish, the album is the story of him mending together the pieces of his broken heart.
This is Frank Ocean’s strength: words. Without seeming preachy, overbearing, or the least bit cliché, Channel Orange pulls you in like a page-turning novel. At times, he’s direct like in “Sweet Life” as he sings “why see the world when you’ve got the beach.” In other cases, he plays with metaphors and words like on “Crack Rock” where he confesses, “You don’t know how little you matter until you’re all alone / In the middle of Arkansas, with a little rock left in that glass dick.” It’s in this vein that there’s something truly special about Frank Ocean. It’s impossible not to sympathize with him.
Like fellow melancholy crooner, The Weeknd, Frank Ocean’s vocals emphasize tone over range. Unlike some of his noted influences (Stevie Wonder and Mary J Blige), there are no gospel solos reminiscent of Whitney Houston or Boyz II Men. In turn, this places the emphasis on his lyrics. After asking a taxi driver “to be his shrink” on “Bad Religion,” he sings, “This unrequited love / To me it’s nothing but a one-man cult / And cyanide in my stryofoam cup / I can never make him love” in a falsetto voice that suggests his instability. Then, on “Pilot Jones,” his sultry and soulful tone is accented by a simple snap rhythm that recalls the sultriness of D’Angelo.
Given his writing, the amount of subtle nuances and intricacies throughout the album is not surprising. From the beginning, “Start” picks up where Nostalgia, Ultra left off, using the same Street Fighter sample and clicking noise of a tape cassette. With “Pilot Jones,” Ocean sets up the metaphor of love as a drug, which continues through “Crack Rock” and “Bad Religion.” And while it’s easy to overlook the transitions, “Pilot Jones” concludes with the sound of a plane getting ready to take off before segueing into “Crack Rock” where Ocean sings about getting high.
Undoubtedly, this album will top many end-of-year lists (certainly mine), but its impact will last much longer. Amidst the many rappers who use f***** in casual slang and those that are actually homophobic, Frank Ocean’s coming out is courageous, but in the context of this album, there’s more. He wrote in his Tumblr letter, “I reminisced about the sentimental songs I enjoyed when I was a teenager. the ones I played when I experienced a girlfriend for the first time. I realized they were written in a language I did not speak.” There’s no doubt that Ocean now speaks this language, a language we can all understand — regardless of our sexual preference.