R&B auteur Frank Ocean’s masterful and disarming major-label debut channel ORANGE is meticulously structured like a long-planned confession, and as Ocean announced shortly before its release, it presents a major one: The first love Ocean alludes to in lead track “Thinkin Bout You”; the unreciprocated love that haunts him in “Bad Religion” and who ultimately runs away in “Forrest Gump” at the end, is a man. Celebrating an autobiographical same-sex attraction, however anguished, and pinpointing its subject with masculine nouns, is nothing less than revolutionary for a mainstream African-American male performer. It would overshadow a lesser work, but it is but one revelation among many here. Ocean presides over his album like a visionary filmmaker, one who favors bright colors and stylized mise-en-scène to offset dark and raw emotional states.
Ocean narrates ORANGE as both participant and shell-shocked observer of “the sweet life”: Drugs are everywhere. Women are riding him like an escalator to the heavens. Super-rich kids and their super-fake friends swarm around him like bees. Despite his bemused detachment, there’s a fireball of hurt smoldering at the center of Ocean’s psyche, and he drifts through ORANGE‘s dream-reality, hanging on to the memory of his painful but profoundly true first love as if it were the ladder of a swimming pool that suddenly got way too deep. Meanwhile, a fluidly shape-shifting backdrop morphs from kaleidoscopic soul grooves to bleak techno to lush orchestral interludes and beyond, further intensifying his inner and outer visions.
He cries out for help with a clarity that’s both stunning and disarming, flipping double and triple entendres the way showier singers get churchy: He likens the “Pink Matter” of his lover’s womb to peaches, mangos, cotton candy and Dragon Ball villain Majin Buu. His subject matter and vocabulary similarly bares the schooling of hip-hop bards: The multi-part epic “Pyramids” concerns a time-traveling Cleopatra the unemployed narrator ultimately pimps in a motel so shabby it’s still got a VCR; “Crack Rock” bemoans the difference between the death of a dope-pushing cop and a brother who gets popped — one brings out a search party 300 strong, the other dies “and don’t no one hear the sound.”
Yet Ocean spins this grit with the luminous vibrancy of the best singer-songwriters, burnishing everything to brilliance with pleading delivery and love of wandering jazz chords. He’s both R&B classicist and rebel; a buoyant Stevie Wonder with Elvis Costello’s acerbic wit while serving up his own favorite flavor — bittersweet. “You run my mind, boy/ Running on my mind,” he croons to his muse, then whistles to him like Otis as if sittin’ on the dock of the bay, gazing at one of the album’s many pink skies that mask the blues within.