It’s hard to talk about Channel Orange, Frank Ocean’s debut album, without talking about the story of same-sex heartache that precedes it. Last week, the crooner with the raw-silk voice opened up about his first love in a Tumblr post, which Ocean (né Christopher Breaux) explained was a plain-text transcript of the album’s liner notes. The declaration was relevant, he noted, because the experience informed his songwriting. The format of the note was relevant, I’d argue, because it neatly captures the paradox Ocean (a member of hip-hop crew Odd Future who’s written tunes for Bieber and Beyoncé) pulls off so effortlessly in his music, a sublime marriage between old-fashioned and futuristic.
Channel Orange is like Stevie Wonder in 3-D, a kaleidoscopic collage of soul anchored in a profound social consciousness. On “Sweet Life,” Ocean packages a deft deconstruction of privilege, instant gratification, and ignorance in a breezy portrait of “the black Beverly Hills” that coasts along on a lazy snare and a spine-tinglingly smooth trickle of keyboards. He explores an extended metaphor about unrequited love and cultish spirituality in “Bad Religion,” an impassioned taxicab confession delivered with a choirboy’s earnestness and couched in vintage Wurlitzer and strings. The swarm of trancey synths that engulf “Pyramids” are slick enough to suggest the almost-10-minute track could be a contender for major radio play.
Channel Orange manages to be both timeless and incredibly timely; right now, we may be talking about Ocean as the guy who was brave enough to open up a conversation about sexuality in hip-hop, but he’ll go down in history as one of the visionaries of modern soul.
Playlist picks: “Pyramids,” “Bad Religion,” “Sweet Life”