Frank Ocean came out last week. But what he came out as is up for debate. In two long paragraphs on his Tumblr, the 24-year-old R&B artist and Odd Future associate wrote, “4 summers ago, I met somebody. I was 19 years old. He was too. We spent that summer, and the summer after, together.” He called the man his “first love.” And like so many first loves, this one ended in heartbreak: After Ocean confessed his feelings, he said his friend, “patted my back. He said kind things. He did his best, but he wouldn’t admit the same.” Few things hurt as much as unrequited love, and it’s got to hurt twice as much when it hits a guy—a teenager, no less—who’s not only admitting how he feels for another person but also admitting that he has questions about his sexual identity.
And that’s the point here: Ocean didn’t come out as a gay man, a straight man or a bisexual man in this letter. He came out as questioning, one of the ever-so-important mid-1990s additions to the LGBT initialism. The “Q” in LGBTQ can also stand for queer, but even that term, often used as a catchall for sexual minorities, seems too defined, too politicized, too boxed-in for Ocean. His admittance, of experiencing connections in the past with both a man and with women, takes on a looser construction. It’s a label-resisting idea that spills over into his music on Channel Orange, his debut studio album that refuses to define itself in strict terms of R&B, hip-hop, soul or funk.
He starts this one much as he did his debut mixtape from 2011, Nostalgia, Ultra, hitting the record button on the sounds of daily life. But where Nostalgia, Ultra‘s “Streetfighter” captured a cassette tape in stages of stop, play, fast forward and rewind, Channel Orange‘s “Start” grabs friends’ laughter, the tri-tone bling of a text message received and the ambient chimes of a video game warming up. It shows that Ocean is still in the DIY, tape-recorded mind state, but he’s not alone in his room anymore.
Following the prelude, Ocean issues a gut-punch of a song with “Thinkin Bout You,” released in its demo state in 2011. Strings glide around the lip of the track before sliding headlong into a slowly stirred cauldron of melting synthesizers. A drum-machine beat bubbles at the surface, and though it’s stretched and heavy, it supplies the song with just enough rhythm to propel it without overwhelming it. There’s a ton of space in this song, and Ocean talk-sings his way through the opening gaps, much like his sometimes-R&B, sometimes hip-hop contemporary Drake. “My eyes don’t shed tears, but boy, they bawling,” he says, and after reading his letter, you can’t help but wonder if that “boy” is the object of his song’s affection. But you’ll forget the question a moment later as Ocean effortlessly shifts into a falsetto that would make Maxwell shiver. “Or do you not think so far ahead,” Ocean says, “‘Cause I’ve been thinkin’ ’bout forever.” This song, in both its words and sounds, is so simple yet so emotive, like a concise version of a chapter-length journal entry. It feels like a classic, one for the canon, which explains why it’s already being covered.
After “Thinkin Bout You,” Ocean jerks you back to reality with the “Fertilizer” interlude, where he sings, “Fertilizer, I’ll take bullshit if that’s all you got.” His album’s humor mixes the goofiness of Stevie Wonder with the cocksure attitude of someone like James Brown. On “Sweet Life,” he kids, “That song wasn’t the single/But you couldn’t turn your radio down.” He keeps that confidence going with “Super Rich Kids,” which opens with a stomping piano beat that sounds like Elton John’s “Bennie And The Jets” and features Odd Future’s prodigal son, Earl Sweatshirt. “Too many white lies and white lines,” Earl growls, before Ocean croons out a quote of Mary J. Blige’s “Real Love.” Ocean can be the serious, heartfelt vocalist when he wants to be, but he’s also kind of a silly dude, playing with video game samples and writing songs like “Forrest Gump.” His “Running on my mind, boy” lyric was definitely inspired by the “Run, Forrest, run!” scene from the movie.
Ocean’s songs on average run about three-and-a-half minutes, making the nearly 10-minute “Pyramids” a notable outlier. This track starts with an airy, swooping beat, but it adds some electric bass guitar, then cuts in some crispy, laser-like synthesizers before fading into a wandering ballad with a slow stutter rhythm for the last five minutes. The song never figures out exactly what it wants to be—club song, slow jam, rock guitar experiment?—but it’s fun to watch Ocean play around. Sure, he can tailor his tracks, but if you give him the space, he’s got plenty of ideas to fill it.
The roominess and the variety are what make this album so interesting. Just when you think you’ve got Ocean pinned in one corner of a genre, he casually switches things up, exchanging a hip-hop rhythm for an electric guitar or a tinny synthesizer line for a church-style organ. Ocean doesn’t live in a black-and-white world. Hell, with Channel Orange, he doesn’t even abide by the rigidity of primary colors. This is a guy whose music resists as many classifications as he does. Ocean didn’t take Anderson Cooper’s “The fact is, I’m gay” route, but as a performer existing in the hyper-heterosexual worlds of R&B and hip-hop, even suggesting that he’s something other than a women-wanting male is impacting. Ocean may not have supplied a succinct conclusion to his sexual identity story, but he has given a reminder that it’s impossible to reach that conclusion without first being allowed to explore the question.