Heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual — it doesn’t matter. Frank Ocean makes good music.
On July 10, the Odd Future band member released his debut studio album, channel ORANGE. Seven days earlier, he had released a note on his tumblr. detailing his first love: at the age of 19 with another man.
It’s regrettable to have to tie Ocean’s sexuality into a discussion of his music, but with the chronological proximity of the two events, they’ll forever be seen as intertwined. A simple look at the comment feed on any Frank Ocean YouTube video makes that much clear. A battle is being fought: On the one side stand fans of his music, on the other, critics of his sexuality and in between, just about everyone else.
Songs on channel ORANGE certainly hint at Ocean’s ambiguous sexuality, but to see it only in light of this revelation would be a shame. This is a sensual album, regardless of your orientation, the type of smooth, New Age R&B that brings out the deepest of human feelings.
Like his acclaimed mixtape, nostalgia, Ultra., channel ORANGE tells a story. With the first track, “Start,” Ocean wakes up to a text message and immediately turns on his PlayStation for a game of “Street Fighter.” Ocean has a penchant for mid-’90s video games and Asian culture, two influences that are prevalent throughout the tape.
Even in the album name there is a story. Like the color of the BMW on the cover of his debut mixtape, orange dominates the cover of his debut album. In fact, it is the cover: a solid orange square with minimal text. Ocean reportedly likes orange because it was the first color he saw when he fell in love for the first time.
The arc of the album is complex. After “Start,” Ocean launches into his popular first single, “Thinkin Bout You.” This track has been out for a while, but the falsetto still manages to impress after multiple listens. Originally released as a reference track for R&B artist Bridget Kelly’s debut album, the song explores the longings of love from a female perspective. With an upbeat cut, it clearly presents the themes ubiquitous throughout the album.
The album itself plays out like a relationship: Initially positive, it inevitably turns dark. Following the 1950s feel of Ocean’s cover of James Fauntleroy II’s “Fertilizer,” there are a handful of more somber tracks. One explores life as a teen parent, another as a crack addict and another as a privileged kid who just can’t seem to find happiness.
The last four tracks on the record — “Bad Religion,” “Pink Matter,” “Forrest Gump” and “End” — comprise the best of channel ORANGE. If you’re going to give Ocean a chance, start here. “Bad Religion” offers a taxicab confession to an unsuspecting driver whom Ocean asks to “be his shrink for the hour.” Ocean is coming out of a dark place, but he begins to realize the follies of his love and that it will never be requited. My favorite of these four tracks is “End.” It’s a skit in which Ocean makes love to a woman in the backseat of a car. In the background, his song “Voodoo” plays over the stereo. His lover tells him, “You’re special. I wish you could see what I see,” borrowing a line from the 2006 filmATL. Yet Ocean responds by opening the door, walking through the rainy night and setting his keys down with a sigh as he enters his home.
If there’s any indication on this album of the torment going through Frank Ocean’s mind, “End” reveals it. He’s spent the whole album searching for companionship, and having just made love to a beautiful woman, he suddenly leaves her to be alone. Only a man grappling with such internal weight could produce the beauty that is channel ORANGE.
Ocean’s debut album has been a success, smashing expectations and posting first-week sales of 131,000 copies. Ocean’s coming out has also been well received by celebrities and the media, with support from the likes of Jay-Z and 50 Cent. What remains to be seen is whether the masses will support Ocean in an industry and culture dominated by the ideal of the hypermasculine man and deep-seated homophobia.
Let’s hope so, because Frank Ocean makes good music.