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Reviews

Channel Orange

Tom Wateracre

Frank Ocean
Def Jam Recordings

Six days before the release of his debut album, Frank Ocean posted a letter on his blog in which he talked about falling in love as a 19-year-old, and that love being spurned because its subject was of the same sex. Previously known as a songwriter for Justin Bieber and Beyonce, and an occasional member of puerile rap clan Odd Future, in Frank Ocean we now had something quite special. Historic, even. A major new talent in the world of urban music had announced that he had had, if not a gay relationship, then certainly same-sex feelings - something shocking to the homophobic rap community.

The timing was impeccable. Six days for Ocean to be roundly praised by the music press and villified by moronic hordes on Twitter before the music came. A guaranteed way of building hype for an unknown act, or an artist pre-empting the babble and baring his soul?

The first reason to doubt the PR stunt angle is that the music is so good. The album is eccentric, boundary pushing and uniquely his. Rather than digital perfection, he favours 70s-sounding electric piano and gurgling synths. The beats are restrained, and his vocals are impassioned and refreshingly autotune-free.

The album isn't perfect - there are some scratchy radio skits, and some songs lack hooks, resting instead on scrappy surrealism - but, when it works, it's reminiscent of Prince's Sign O The Times in its ambition and range, with a little 70s Stevie Wonder thrown in.

Freed from making something for the charts, Ocean tells tales of hollow, neon glamour. It's the opposite of bling; the drugs aren't fun and riches bring loneliness. When he namechecks brands (on 'Lost' he sings 'Got on my buttercream silk shirt / And it's Versace') it's with a sad-eyed resignation, a sense that he should know better.

The best example of Ocean's approach to wealth is 'Super Rich Kids', a fascinating song about aimless, moneyed youths. Over a lolloping piano reminiscent of 'Benny and the Jets', Ocean's Odd Future colleague Earl Sweatshirt raps 'The maids come around too much / Parents ain't around enough', while Ocean sings of stocks and shares - and, bizarrely, shower-heads - before concluding 'I'm searching for a real love'.

The album becomes special, however, when it addresses Ocean's pre-release revelations. 'Bad Religion' places Ocean's narrator in a taxi, where the driver responds to being asked to 'be my shrink for the hour' with 'Boy, you need prayer'. The narrator says 'If it brings me to my knees, it's a bad religion', before masterful songwriting bends this concept back into his own situation, concluding that unrequited love isn't much of a religion either: 'Unrequited love / It's nothing but a one-man cult... I could never make him love me'. Wrapped in swooping strings, it's heartfelt and heartbreaking.

Similarly impressive is the deconstructed Motown strut of 'Forrest Gump', in which Ocean talks about his love, a boy 'who wouldn't hurt a beetle'. He proves himself a writer of verve, equating the way the boy is 'running on his mind' with the titular Tom Hanks movie. This isn't your standard Usher joint.
Writing so movingly on unrequited love is a world away from the urban music of the clubs and charts, and even further away from the violent and controversial imagery of Odd Future. Ocean is fond of using characters and narrative, often singing from different points of view (intriguingly, not all male), but he knows when to drop the artifice. He's singing from the heart.

Ocean has been opening for Coldplay in arenas, finding kinship in acts famous for making emotive music for outsiders. He has the urban grit thanks to Odd Future, and the songwriting chops thanks to his work with mainstream pop. How fitting that his coming-out should be the start of a creative blossoming into a dynamic, thrilling  talent.

Tom Wateracre