Let’s get this out of the way first: Last week, when Frank Ocean wrote plainly and beautifully about a past relationship, one with someone who shared his gender, it was an act of absolute bravery and inspiration, and a watershed moment for a rap universe that has, in this respect at least, inched toward enlightenment more slowly than the rest of the world. Just about everyone acknowledges this. But, in various shady corners of the internet, I’ve seen speculation that Ocean’s coming-out moment came so close to his album-release date for more cynical reasons. And I don’t think I can emphasize this enough: This speculation is wrong. From the moment we all heard the astonishing 10-minute “Pyramids,” if not before then, we all knew that Channel Orange was going to be something special. The few people who’d been granted access to listening sessions reported back as much. And now Channel Orange is here, dropped onto the internet right around midnight so that we could all experience it together. And yeah, Channel Orange is a special album, an utterly absorbing piece of art. Frank Ocean’s story is a wonderful thing, but the album didn’t need it. The album, in itself, is enough.
When we talk about Frank Ocean, there’s so much context and backstory to consider. There’s his sexuality, which he has admirably resisted labeling even as he discusses it with us. There are his years languishing on the major-label shelf, cranking out works for hire and staying invisible. There’s his emergence as a voice of peace within the anarchic Odd Future crew, an association that only makes sense if you think about everyone involved as kids striving for transcendence. There’s the Weeknd, and last-year’s mini-boom of the so-called PBR&B, and Ocean’s debatable place within it. There’s the fact that you can’t turn on a TV without seeing a movie trailer that uses Frank’s hook on “No Church In The Wild” as background music. Ocean’s only been on the collective radar for about a year and a half, but there are already so many intriguing and fascinating storylines to untangle. But here’s the important part: When Channel Orange is on, those storylines melt away into the ether. The album becomes its own universe, and none of the other stuff matters. That would be a powerful achievement coming from any artist. From one as young and green as Ocean, it’s a revelation. Nostalgia, Ultra. was an announcement of a major talent. Channel Orange is something else. It’s an instant classic, one that creates its own context.
For me, at least, “Bad Religion,” which Ocean performed stunningly on Jimmy Fallon last night, is the album’s finest moment — Ocean’s eye settling on a moment in the back of a cab, which gives him a chance to lament on lost love, debate theology and direction with his driver, wonder where he fits into the world. It’s a devastatingly still and personal song, one that renders personal uncertainty as something so specific that it feels universal.
But all of Channel Orange isn’t as focused on Ocean himself — or, at least, I don’t think it is. For much of the album, he floats into the background, conveying other people’s life situations with empathy and imagination. On “Sweet Life” and “Super Rich Kids,” he turns into a black Bret Easton Ellis, giving voice to the disconnected and drugged-out elite children of Ladera Heights; I love how Earl Sweatshirt deadens his lively flow to stay in character. On “Crack Rock,” he sings about what happens when those kids and those drugs become too well-acquainted, and he does it without judgement. On “Lost,” he’s a disaffected world-traveling drug kingpin — Rick Ross, but with pathos. On “Monks,” he’s completely left the earthly plane, fantasizing about finding nirvana through moshing or fucking.
Musically, Channel Orange doesn’t make a whole lot of references to other pieces of music, like the obvious samples on Nostalgia, Ultra., and I think that’s an artistic decision, not a sample-budget thing. The music here is luxurious and reserved; it bends and swells in ways that don’t immediately grab attention, and even the John Mayer guitar solos fit into the greater whole. When Ocean does reach out to other pieces of music, as when he sings a snatch of Mary J. Blige’s “Real Love” on “Super Rich Kids,” it feels natural to the song — like its characters are seizing on the one thing they can find that actually expresses how they feel. And the album’s musical world is a soft and gentle place, an ideal bed for Ocean’s angelic floating-dove voice. Ocean’s voice is just a wonder: A conversational croon that can express big ideas without making a big deal about them, and it launches into an unearthly falsetto without straining itself.
Now that we’ve heard their respective sophomore efforts, it seems nuts that anyone ever compared Ocean to the Weeknd, a self-styled predatory lothario with a decidedly limited scope. Instead the parallel that makes the most sense is Channel Orange’s strongest competition for album of the year: Fiona Apple’s The Idler Wheel… (Swear to god I though of this comparison before a prominent critic friend Tweeted it.) Ocean, like Apple, disappeared within his brain and came out with an album as richly expressive as it is musically vivid. Both of them take stylistic risks without broadcasting those risks. Both of them are completely in control of their luminous, inimitable voices. And both of them have given us some heavy shit to chew on. After it’s been on repeat for hours, I feel like I’m still just skimming Channel Orange. I can’t wait to dig deeper.