Frank Ocean: Channel Orange – review

Frank Ocean has got a lot of people talking about his sexuality – but his brilliant, beautiful new album is the real story

The news that Frank Ocean had apparently outed himself as bisexual received a variety of reactions, but perhaps the most curious was the suggestion he was indulging in a kind of publicity stunt. In fairness, you can see why people thought that. His announcement arrived just before his major label debut album was due and overnight it turned Ocean into the most-discussed R&B artist in the world.

And yet, if it is a publicity stunt, it's an incredibly risky one. However brave his stand, you patently don't sell R&B albums by becoming a liberal cause celebre. People have made comparisons to David Bowie's "I'm gay" interview from January 1972, but the difference is that in January 1972 David Bowie had almost nothing to lose: he was a one-hit wonder whose previous two albums had failed to chart. Ocean was already much-discussed before he mentioned his sexuality, and the discussion was largely about Pyramids, the astonishing album track he leaked weeks ago. Nine minutes long, brazenly episodic, shifting from hallucinatory ambience to synthesised funk to slow-jam R&B to a sprawling, vaguely Pink Floyd-like guitar solo, it sounded remarkably audacious. If the lyrical conceit – contrasting the fortunes of the last pharaoh of Egypt with those of a latterday prostitute – seemed ambitious to the point of sounding slightly daft, the track was certainly unlike anything else in current R&B. Now the talk has moved to what its author may or may not do in bed, and it's loud enough to drown out his music entirely.

While a mainstream urban artist suggesting he's anything other than rabidly heterosexual is certainly a big deal, it would be a shame if that's what Channel Orange was remembered for. The issue at the centre of the fuss – an unconsummated man-crush five years ago – certainly doesn't feel central to the album. It's touched on in the opening Thinkin Bout You, and again in the lushly orchestrated melodrama of Bad Religion and the gorgeous closer Forrest Gump, which pitches languid Southern soul guitar, churchy organ and a tender vocal against a ghostly backdrop of echoing voices. It's certainly fascinating to hear Bad Religion boldly repurposing the battle between religion and lust that's been at the heart of soul music since it ceded from gospel, and under the circumstances, it's hard not to raise an eyebrow at Forrest Gump's opening line: "I want to see your pom-poms from the stand."

But the personal stuff seems at odds with the rest of the album, where Ocean shifts away from the latterday model of the male R&B singer as a kind of Auto-Tuned solipsist, ever ready to elicit sympathy for terrible lot of the multi-platinum superstar. Ocean's sound looks further back – you catch hints of early-70s Stevie Wonder in the melodies and the preponderance of electric piano – but there's nothing reverential about his approach. In a formulaic era, his production is impressively idiosyncratic, heavy on hazy electronics and cavernous, dubby reverb, and packed with weird touches: the melodies never quite pan out as you expect them to, while the backing shifts and changes unpredicatably.

Ocean's songs draw compelling, unjudgmental portraits of dark subjects. They're packed with affecting detail – "your family stopped inviting you to things," he notes of the addict on Crack Rock – or shot from intriguing angles: set to taut, chugging guitars that recall Dirty Mind-era Prince, Lost depicts another crack addict ogling his girlfriend's cleavage as she cooks up, unable to believe she's still with him.

Meanwhile, Sweet Life and Super Rich Kids relocate the aimless, moneyed teenagers of Bret Easton Ellis's Less Than Zero to Ladera Heights, "the black Beverly Hills". The latter, decorated with a thumping piano line that recalls Elton John's Benny and the Jets and a suitably wall-eyed rap by Odd Future's Earl Sweatshirt, is stunning, its protagonists haunted by the fear that the financial crisis might bring an end to their gilded youth.

"I don't know what happens now, and that's alrite," wrote Ocean in the Tumblr post that started the fuss. Perhaps this is R&B's Ziggy Stardust moment, where the controversy and publicity surrounding an artist's sexuality and the brilliance of his latest album combine to give his career unstoppable momentum; perhaps not. For now, the best tribute you can pay Channel Orange is that, while it plays, you forget about the chatter and just luxuriate in a wildly original talent. The whys and wherefores of Frank Ocean's sexuality seem completely irrelevant. Which is, of course, just as it should be.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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