.Sea Change

Frank Ocean, 'Channel Orange,' and the tides of love

It starts with a sound unmistakable to a certain generation, the power-up of a Sony PlayStation—a sound intertwined with youth, triggering a sensation of innocence.

It says much about Frank Ocean, a 24-year-old singer and songwriter whose excellent album Channel Orange is released this week, that he chose this particular sound effect to open his official debut album. These days, the sweetness of innocence is elusive for Ocean. Sure, he’s famous; he’s written for Beyoncé, Justin Beiber, Jay-Z, Kanye West and John Legend, and his mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra became an earbud staple in 2011 for both critics and fans, buoyed by sharp hooks and honest lyrics.

Then the Fourth of July rolled around, and honesty got the best of him. At 1am, Ocean posted to Tumblr a long, touching account of falling in love with another man. “There was no escaping, no negotiating with the feeling,” he wrote. “It was my first love, it changed my life. . . . I don’t have any secrets I need kept anymore.”

Within days, some funny things happened. Ocean was widely hailed as the first rapper to come out as gay, even though he is not a rapper, and even though he did not come out as gay, precisely (even so, he would not have been the first). In the media frenzy, Ocean tweeted about the hate he was receiving—”If only people would stop judging. . . . Looks like I’m finding out who my true fans are”—but from where I stood, he was getting nothing but love.

This could be that we’re in the Bay Area. (After Ocean’s post, the cheapest price online for scalped tickets to Ocean’s sold-out show in San Francisco on July 14 immediately jumped to $125, higher than anywhere else in the nation.) But it’s also because of a worldwide imminent fact of modern times: if you are gay, people born after 1984 totally, absolutely and completely do not care.

On Channel Orange, a few songs wrestle with loving men, most don’t. Sonically, it stays true to recent trends in R&B by blending synthesizer sounds from the 1980s with low-frequency bass rumbles. John Mayer and Andre 3000 are guests, as well as Earl Sweatshirt, an associate of Ocean’s in their shared L.A. collective Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All—whose members, despite liberally using the word “faggot” in their songs, all came forward in unwavering support of Ocean last week.

But perhaps the biggest show of support for Ocean came from the public at large. Channel Orange was self-leaked by Ocean on his Tumblr for free streaming, and also released digitally by Ocean’s label Def Jam a week early, on Monday, at midnight. Within an hour, young music listeners, who allegedly don’t listen to full albums and who allegedly don’t ever pay for music, grabbed their parent’s credit cards and made it No. 1 on iTunes.

Independence Day, indeed.

Frank Ocean plays a sold-out show July 14 at the Regency Ballroom in San Francisco.


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