Frank Ocean's channel ORANGE belongs to a tradition of artists who use soul music as a search for truth, whether it's personal or political. Marvin Gaye's Here, My Dear, D'Angelo's Voodoo, Erykah Badu's New Amerykah Part One (4th World War)... these albums are meandering in the best way, compiling disconnected melodies and unusual verse structures in such a way that they often feel structureless. Unlike, say, Beyonce's 4, they aren't filled with a series of potential singles, though they have plenty of great, if often non-traditional, songs. They don't try to KO you with hits, but immerse you in a strange new world of inner visions, pain and pleasure.
Channel ORANGE begins as a coming-of-age tale. Songs like "Super Rich Kids," "Sweet Life," "Crack Rock" and "Pyramids" illustrate Ocean's middle-class upbringing in New Orleans, and his subsequent life in Los Angeles as a rising songwriter for Brandy and John Legend, and a member of notorious hip-hop crew Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All. But as its hour-long running time runs down, it narrows to his torment over his sexuality and a blossoming romance with another man. He expresses his fear over being stigmatized on "Bad Religion"; on "Forrest Gump," over a churchy-sounding Rhodes piano, he conjures a distinctly homoerotic version of the Tom Hanks movie, specifically the scene where Gump runs for a touchdown. "My fingertips and my lips, they burn from this cigarette/ Forrest Gump/ You run my mind, boy."
Weeks before the release of channel ORANGE, Ocean posted a document on his Tumblr page titled "thank you's." In it, he declared that his first true love was a man whom he slept with for years, and who eventually rejected him when he revealed his feelings. There has been a lot of debate over that statement, and whether Ocean has come out of the closet as a gay man, or simply described a memorable same-sex affair. (He also writes about encounters with girlfriends in the post.) There is even controversy over whether his "sleep" with his lover was sexual or platonic. Although there have been notable, out-and-proud gay black singers in the past -- the late, lamented disco pioneer Sylvester comes to mind -- no male R&B artist with this level of mainstream visibility has ever admitted to being gay, bisexual or open to same-sex relationships.
It has been heartening to see the level of support he's subsequently gotten from other musicians. But it's not hard to imagine how he'd be treated if he hadn't appeared on Jay-Z & Kanye West's 2011 hit Watch the Throne, or made channel ORANGE, which is one of the most highly rated albums of 2012 and is expected to appear in the Top 10 of most critics' year-end lists. After Ocean's Tumblr post made international headlines, people began to speculate as to which other R&B men might be "downlow brothers." These lists usually involved singers that use high vocal registers, as if such traits were signs of their "gayness." Yet in spite of the way many rappers use homophobic lyrics, the urban music industry isn't necessarily a raging cauldron of anti-gay culture. There are too many behind-the-scenes people that identify as LGBQT, from stylists, publicists and art designers to label executives, magazine editors and video directors. This contradiction is why a rapper like Odd Future leader Tyler, the Creator can embrace Frank Ocean and lesbian DJ, producer and vocalist Syd Tha Kyd in his Odd Future crew, but also spew homophobic epithets on his 2011 album Goblin.
You could argue that speculation over Ocean's proclivities has overshadowed channel ORANGE. Most great albums, or at least the ones we tend to remember, have a myth established around them. It can be a breakthrough moment in stardom like Prince's Purple Rain. It can be a life-changing personal event, such as Lauryn Hill's breakup with The Fugees and her birth of a child born by a member of the Marley family inspiring The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. The story of channel ORANGE is of Frank Ocean's coming out to the public, whether that be revealing his sexual orientation or simply revealing his innermost thoughts, fears and desires.
There are other subplots on the record, of course. For a brief moment in the 2000s, future soul and its blend of electronic funk, techno, and fusion jazz seemed like the next great movement. In Los Angeles, it spawned Sa-Ra Creative Partners and J*Davey, both of whom faltered when their music didn't translate to a wide audience. Future soul never took off, but it had an impact on younger artists like Frank Ocean and Syd Tha Kyd, whose R&B group The Internet released Purple Naked Ladies earlier this year. And Om'Mas Keith, one of the producers behind Sa-Ra, co-produced channel ORANGE with Malay (whose credits include John Legend's "Green Light"), Pharrell Williams and Ocean.
Then there is the singer-songwriter movement of the 1970s. The opening notes on "Super Rich Kids" make reference to Elton John's "Bennie and the Jets." The presence of Pharrell Williams, who co-wrote "Sweet Life," ensures the influence of Williams' band N.E.R.D., whose 2002 debut In Search Of... beguiled listeners with its cross-breeding of Weezer-like pop-rock and jiggy rap. Vocally, Frank Ocean takes cues from The-Dream, one of the most influential R&B artists of the past decade. However, his mix of falsetto, monotone and a yelping delivery that sounds as if he's holding his breath makes him both a contemporary of new-wave R&B stars like Drake and a vocalist in a category of his own.
Finally, Radiohead's Kid A deserves inclusion here, and not only because Ocean inserted a snippet from "Optimistic" on his 2011 debut, Nostalgia, Ultra. Radiohead compose music that can be extremely introverted, just as Ocean devises a convoluted metaphor of latter-day strippers descended from Egyptian queens on his "Pyramid." Yet Radiohead successfully brought their highly personal and idiosyncratic songs to stadium-sized audiences around the world. Ocean has summoned his own experiences with uncommon brilliance in hopes that his words will connect with a wide audience that feels the same way, and will look to him to express our emotions in a way we sometimes cannot. It's that fearless artistry that gives channel ORANGE the potential to linger in our memories for years to come.