Wearing his striped bandanna like a candy-cane halo, Frank Ocean spoke to a sold-out 9:30 Club on Monday night with his head practically bowed.
“I said a couple things in the past couple weeks,” the 24-year-old singer murmured. “Things I needed to say.”
Then, with two hands squeezing the microphone, he clenched his eyelids to sing “Bad Religion,” a ballad about burying his love for another man in piles of shame and confusion. Behind him, a projected grid of TV screens unleashed a torrent of images, like the “Jeopardy!” board gone mad.
“Bad Religion” provides the most breathtaking moment on “Channel Orange,” the stunning new album Ocean released this month after publicly announcing that his first love was a man. The R&B world has since rallied around the Los Angeles singer, and the response to the album has been rightfully rapturous. But Ocean’s gig Monday night wasn’t the kind of splashy arrival typical of so many next big things. It was something more contemplative. More confident. More rewarding.
Questions about Ocean’s sexuality started to churn weeks before the album’s slated release. Listeners began noticing the pronouns he was using in his love songs. But even if you were keeping tally of the he’s and she’s Monday, it was the I’s and you’s that jumped out.
When Ocean sang in the second person, his music had bite. “You’ve had a landscaper and a housekeeper since you were born,” he crooned to the brats of the tony neighborhood Ladera Heights on “Sweet Life,” a song about growing up spoiled in California’s “black Beverly Hills.” As his guitarist noodled through a solo, Ocean bopped amid his four-piece backing band in a playful two-step.
But in the first person, Ocean’s body language changed. “I’m nervous,” he sang on “Forrest Gump,” one of the most vulnerable and plain-spoken confessionals on “Channel Orange.” He spent most of the song flat-footed behind the microphone, chin lowered, face locked in concentration.
Is the chasm between in-studio craftsmanship and onstage showmanship bigger for any other artist out there?
Yes, it’s easy to hear the ecstasies of Prince, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye in his songs, but Ocean’s free-floating stage presence underscored the fact that he doesn’t come from the show-biz age of yesteryear. He’s a creature of the recording studio — he’s written songs for Beyonce and Justin Bieber and has collaborated with Jay-Z and Kanye West — and his insular mystique seems to be resonating with information-age babies who grew up navigating the bandwidth by their lonesome.
Certain boomers don’t like him as much. “I got in a little bit of trouble over this one,” Ocean said as he introduced “American Wedding,” a song that originally sampled the Eagles’ “Hotel California.” The Eagles quickly threw up their wings in protest and demanded Ocean stop playing it live.
No sweat. On Monday, he re-imagined the song as a funky chunk of upside-down Americana worthy of “Around the World in a Day”-era Prince.
In fact, Ocean has been opening shows on this tour with a cover of the Purple Guy’s “When You Were Mine,” but he switched things up Monday with a loyal read of Sade’s tender “By Your Side” instead. Young fans sang along with a distinctly untender enthusiasm, making the moment feel anything but retro.
To close the set, the singer took them back to the future with “Pyramids,” a nine-plus-minute epic that seemed like “Bohemian Rhapsody” for the 21st-century Xanax-munching set.
“We’ll run to the future, shining like diamonds in a rocky world,” Ocean sang. But he didn’t sound rushed. He may be a rookie in the race to pop greatness, but he’s already miles ahead of the pack.