There is a difference between Frank Ocean and the rest of his R&B contemporaries. No, it has nothing to do with his admittedly introverted demeanor, or his Odd Future affiliation, or penchant for playing “Guitar Hero” in time with a legendary Eagles guitar solo. It especially has nothing to do with his sexual orientation. Rather, this 24-year-old is lapping his peers and setting the blogosphere ablaze because of the fearlessness in everything he does.
As he demonstrated on last year’s spectacular mixtape “Nostalgia, Ultra,” Ocean is not afraid to adopt instrumentation choices outside of the R&B realm, dabble with different song layouts, and most importantly, present his audience with big questions that have nothing to do with sex. On “Nostalgia, Ultra,” Ocean crooned about the apocalypse over a Coldplay song; two tracks later, he was laying out his views on abortion and the moon landing. Nothing about Ocean’s musical and lyrical choices is conventional — and when his major label debut, “Channel Orange,” was previewed not with a radio-friendly pop jam but with a nearly 10-minute concept piece titled “Pyramids,” fans of his bold stylistic maneuvers breathed a collective sigh of relief.
Now that “Channel Orange” has arrived on iTunes, that sigh of relief has become a squeal of excitement. And rightly so: over 17 tracks, some of which spin into nothingness and others which poke longingly at the meaning of the universe, “Channel Orange” presents a complex view of American life from the mind of superbly talented writer and vocalist. On “Channel Orange,” Ocean is preoccupied with wealth, drugs and sex, but instead of toasting his newfound fame and its spoils, the singer pulls at the thread of their existence, and paws at the idea of love and its place in between all of the shiny material. Happiness is constantly out of Ocean’s reach on these songs, whether he’s calling unrequited love a “one-man cult” or sitting on his roof, wondering what his next move is when he has everything. There are celebratory moments, but there is a lot of confusion from a young man forging an unfamiliar path.
But no matter what Ocean’s mood is on the album, the songs sound fantastic. The production never smothers the singer’s sumptuous vocals, which spill over into pockets of air that the listener didn’t know could be filled. “Channel Orange” does not contain any bad songs, although there are times when Ocean’s themes could be a bit tighter. Yet Ocean’s irrepressible spirit carries all 55 minutes of this opus, shining light on subjects that are not discussed often enough and spinning new webs of ideas around familiar R&B tropes. “Channel Orange” may make Frank Ocean a household name, or it might not. Either way, it’s one of the best albums of the year, and Ocean, hopefully, will keep making more like it, without a hint of reservation.