There was no one more fascinating in the world of music last year than Frank Ocean. Last July, before the release of his debut studio album, channel ORANGE, he posted a poetic expression of love for a man on his Tumblr. Artists like Jay-Z and Tyler, the Creator, who have waxed homophobic in the (not so distant) past, voiced their support of his (bi?)sexuality. Yet even after such an open declaration, Ocean remained a cipher. Though that Tumblr post comes off as vulnerable, he’s never given us a decisive answer as to the nature of his sexuality. We know very little about his personal life. And I’m okay with that; the detachment I see in the man reflects the feigned insouciance I hear in his music.
On channel ORANGE, Frank Ocean always seems at an arm’s length away, until on several songs he pulls you close and forces you to look him in the eye. He raps on “Super Rich Kids” and “Sweet Life” about rich people who keep fake friends around because it’s comfortable and spoon-fed people who live on the beach because it’s nothing like the real world. You might expect songs about the 1% to be angrier, but the most Ocean ever musters is a little bitterness; by and large, he’s content to empathize with their malaise. Even in the most outspoken statement of love on the record, the smooth “Thinkin Bout You”, Ocean claims he doesn’t even like you, he “just thought you were cool / Enough to kick it”. The “forever” he’s been thinkin bout sounds like it’ll last till the end of his high.
This might make the album sound depressing, but Ocean’s beautiful voice and his sharp insight into this generation’s discontentment lift channel ORANGE to masterpiece level. You get the idea that he’s capable of more emotion than the characters he sings about, especially in the standout songs “Pyramids” and “Bad Religion”. “Pyramids” is epic and shows empathy for queens and strippers that only the deepest of men would be able to pull off. “Bad Religion” brings us back to his declaration of love for that man. He said in that Tumblr post that he feels like a free man. The pain in this song says otherwise; the religion Ocean is referring to in “Bad Religion” is unrequited love. His confession of love on Tumblr was poetic, but if he thinks accepting his sexuality will set him free, he’s looking for freedom in the wrong place. The world only reinforced the notion that he should feel free. Though I’m grateful for his great music, that makes me sad.