When Frank Ocean croons “I’m searching for a real love,” on the Mary J-sampling “Super Rich Kids,” you can’t help but believe him. Authentic emotion and heartfelt delivery are the singer’s primary ammunition. Look no further than his sizzling 2011 mixtape Nostalgia Ultra, which delivered remarkable fan faves like the popular R&B cut “Novacane,” for further evidence. Now comes his stellar, eclectic solo debut Channel Orange (Def Jam), another winning sample of his budding genius.
By now you are quite likely aware that the 24-year-old Ocean (né Christopher Breaux) is not one to shy away from baring his soul. The tapped-for-greatness artist who has written for Beyoncé and provided a pair of memorable hooks on Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch the Throne album, snagged headlines last month when he opened up to his fans publicly that his first love was a man – reigniting widespread discourse on sexuality in hip-hop.
On the new 17-track album, the New Orleans native maintains that sort of keep-it-real aesthetic which has endeared him to thousands. He testifies of unrequited love on the taxicab confessional, “Bad Religion,” where he laments “I couldn’t make him love me.” Then there’s the slow-burning runaway hit, “Thinking ’Bout You,” which has spawned covers by a host of R&B up-and-comers, including a pretty decent one from actor-singer Tristan Wilds.
But love in all its guises is not the only thing on Ocean’s mind. Elsewhere, the listener finds him musing on everything from wild sex and freaky girls to the social status quo, painting his music with vibrant colours he has taken from across the soul/hip-hop landscape. “Sweet Life” is pure D’Angelo-esque vintage soul/funk, while on cuts like “Crack Rock,” he is a dead ringer for Musiq Soulchild. The inherent thrill of these songs is how Ocean manages to make them entirely his own.
Meantime, as far as guest appearances go, Ocean enlists a handful of VIPs for cameos. John Mayer shows up for the unfortunately too-brief instrumental “White,” Earl Sweatshirt lends a sly verse towards the end of “Super Rich Kids,” and André 3000 drops some characteristically clever rhymes on “Pink Matter.”
Still, you are never in doubt as to who is the star of these proceedings. Because what emerges on Channel Orange, above all else, is a sincere soul and a bonafide rising star whose refreshing musical talent is way too outsized to be ignored.
BEST TRACKS: “Forrest Gump,” “Thinking ’Bout You,” and “Bad Religion.”