**** (out of four)
It's impossible to review "Channel Orange," the epic solo debut Frank Ocean dropped early Tuesday, without also talking about what's happened in his life in the past week. That includes: an immediately legendary late-night performance and a much-discussed revelation about Ocean’s first love. When talking about this bombshell of an album, the real-life and the recorded material can't be separated.
It’s unclear whether the Odd Future member calculated that sort of bottleneck timing or whether he was just doing things on his own terms. I'm inclined to think the latter. Ocean carries himself as someone who calmly, confidently knows this is his time. There's an egotistical, entitled way of establishing yourself (see: Kanye West), but Ocean comes across as open, raw and present.
His decision to make "Channel Orange" available a week early, immediately following his "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon" appearance, was nothing short of genius. After watching Ocean’s performance of "Bad Religion," you just want to sit with your heart for a while. Then you want to hear more—and the album's ready and waiting.
The record itself is masterful and offers an incredible level of thematic development. Ocean decries wealth, laughs at the crap and rues lost love. Nowhere is his storytelling skill more evident than on "Pyramids," which I actually thought had to be at least three separate songs after the first few listens. The 10-minute-plus opera takes a parallel trip between the times of Cleopatra and a modern-day entanglement. There's no hope to be found in this journey, no matter where you turn.
It's a mood that's pervasive throughout. Maybe I've taken one too many spins through Fiona Apple's "The Idler Wheel…"--Actually, that’s not possible; hers may be the best album of the year-- but in some ways, "Channel Orange" could be the male companion piece to that record. Like Apple, Ocean's emotions certainly aren't easy on him. "You don't know how little you matter until you're all alone," he sings on "Crack Rock." "We end our day up on the roof/I say I'll jump but never do," he postures on "Super Rich Kids." You can see where every single night might be a fight with his brain.
But Ocean takes a step beyond Apple when it comes to the scope of his world. She's living mostly inside herself; he's relating every element of his life to us through his own special filter. On "Bad Religion," we sit in the backseat of that taxi with Ocean. We take the same heavy, possibly-alcohol-tinged breaths. Our legs make the same scrunching noise on the seat. We mourn his loss, and remember our own.
“Bad Religion” also is the most blatant nod to Ocean’s other big reveal this week, the fact that his first love was a man (This unrequited love/To me it’s nothing but a one-man cult ... I could never make him love me). The reaction from the Internet was largely supportive, including British Rapper Speech Debelle tweeting that “Frank Ocean didn’t ‘come out,’ he just let us in.” In other words, this isn’t about what Ocean told us—it’s that he was brave enough to create a rare, vulnerable emotional bond with his listeners that many other artists seemingly work to avoid.
So this 4-star rating may be based in unequal parts on the merits of the music itself, the emotions it stirs up and its place in the cultural zeitgeist. So what? Isn't that a sign of good art?
Something else to consider: Go listen to Beyonce's "I Miss You." Then think about the fact that Ocean wrote that song. Then listen to it again. Changes everything, doesn't it?
SEE HIM LIVE: Aug. 3 at Metro, Aug. 4 at Lollapalooza
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