When Frank Ocean addressed speculation about his sexuality last week, the declaration on his Tumblr page felt lyrical. “Time would glide,” the R&B singer wrote, eloquently transporting us a few summers back to when he met his first love — a man.
It was a first for R&B, too. For decades, no other genre of American pop music has chronicled heterosexual love in greater detail. Suddenly, Ocean had become the first mainstream R&B artist to go public about a romance that previous generations would have fiercely fought to conceal.
But the urban music community — not always known for its gay-friendly attitudes — has largely rallied around Ocean this week while detractors ducked into social media’s digital bathroom stalls to scrawl their ugliness.
But overall, Ocean’s announcement has been greeted with a support that’s beginning to feel emblematic of the country’s changing attitudes about homosexuality.
Then on Tuesday, another surprise — the Los Angeles singer’s major-label debut album “Channel Orange” would be available on iTunes a week before it was scheduled to land in stores. After a few listens, it feels as if it landed years ahead of time.
At 24, Ocean shows a sure-footed confidence that took many of his forebears years to summon. But his songwriting chops shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s been following this guy’s young career. He released a lovely digital album last year, “Nostalgia, Ultra”; he’s helped pen songs for Justin Bieber, John Legend and Beyonce; he sang the most exquisite hook on Kanye West and Jay-Z’s 2011 collaboration album “Watch the Throne”; and he’s made standout contributions as a member of the rowdy Los Angeles rap collective Odd Future.
But with “Channel Orange,” it’s Ocean’s poise as a lyricist, vocalist and producer that feels so arresting. Reimagining the melodic sensibilities of Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder and the evaporated song structures of D’Angelo, Maxwell and Erykah Badu, he’s forging his own brand of neo-neo-soul.
And he’s an incredibly gifted narrator. Each song on this album tells a story in high-definition detail, some tales more cryptic than others. That’s why “Channel Orange” is an album best experienced with your eyes closed. Listen carefully and the plot will unfold on your eyelids.
Ocean isn’t always the protagonist. “Sweet Life” and “Super Rich Kids” both emerge from the shadow of Bret Easton Ellis’s “Less Than Zero,” recounting tales of young Angelenos strung out on their own privilege. On “Super Rich Kids,” Ocean announces that he and his friends are drunk on “bottles of this wine we can’t pronounce,” and he can’t seem to stop himself from mixing metaphors: “The market’s down like sixty stories/And some don’t end the way they should/My silver spoon has fed me good.”
Pianos and drums plod along in “Bennie and the Jets”-ish fashion, but the song peaks with a plea cribbed from a Mary J. Blige hit: “I’m searching for a real love.”
You can hear Ocean and his characters searching for that real love at almost every turn. The lyrics of “Monks” read like pages torn from an Odd Future tour diary where concerts feel like religious rites and fans “mosh for enlightenment.” But the song ends with Ocean and his lover trying to escape the night life, and maybe their respective childhoods too. “We made it safely/Even with your father’s army trailing us,” he sings. “Even with his archer’s bows at our backs/What a great escape.”
No matter how dreamlike his imagery, Ocean’s voice always stands tall at the center of these songs. The minimal instrumentation never overwhelms the soundscape, and the singer’s falsetto consistently glows with a quiet confidence.
He can get loud, though. “Crack Rock” starts as a lament for a drug addict and ends in a furious diatribe against the so-called war on drugs. “You don’t know how little you matter until you’re all alone in the middle of Arkansas with a little rock,” Ocean sings. Multi-tracked harmonies flood the mix intermittently, like a hit from the pipe, ecstatic and fleeting.
Other songs are more oblique. “Pyramids,” a righteous funk opus that spans nearly 10 minutes, is loaded with metaphorical riddles, drawing parallels between Cleopatra and a 21st-century prostitute. Puzzle over it. Dance to it. All of the above.
It’ll take much longer than 24 hours to decode Ocean’s entire lyric sheet. It could take a year. That’s about how long “Thinkin Bout You,” a song about a forbidden love that hints at Ocean’s sexuality, has been available online.
On it, Ocean sings: “My eyes don’t shed tears but, boy, they pour when I’m thinkin’ ’bout you.” Last summer, it was easy to hear that “boy” as a synonym for “wow.” Now, it’s hard not to hear a new urgency coursing through the refrain. “Do you think about me still?” he croons. “Or do you not think so far ahead/’Cause I’ve been thinkin’ bout forever.”
He’s at his most revealing with the spartan ballad “Bad Religion.” It opens with a church organ and Ocean singing from the back seat of a taxi where he asks the driver to be his “shrink for the hour” in hopes that they can “outrun the demons.”
Confiding in a stranger, he sings of “Unrequited love/To me, it’s nothing but a one man cult.” The song’s closing couplet offers the album’s most confessional moment: “It’s a bad religion to be in love with someone who could never love you/And only bad religion could have me feeling the way I do.”
It’s a paralyzing turn of phrase, but there’s no angst in his loneliness — just a somber self-awareness rarely expressed so profoundly in song.
RECOMMENDED TRACKS: “Pyramids,” “Thinkin Bout You,” “Bad Religion” “Crack Rock.”