Frank Ocean made headlines earlier this month after the R&B singer declared on his website that his first serious relationship was with a man, a risky revelation in a genre that has been outwardly hostile to homosexuals.
The statement was necessary, in part, because Ocean refers to relationships with both women and men on his commercial debut, "Channel Orange" (Def Jam). The bigger reason, though, is that Ocean will be a huge star.
There hasn't been an R&B debut this ambitious and self-assured in more than a decade -- since Erykah Badu's "Baduizm" and Maxwell's "Urban Hang Suite." And it's no stretch to start comparing Ocean's storytelling abilities to Marvin Gaye, his melodic gifts to Stevie Wonder and his songwriting to Prince.
Doubters need only to check the stunning 10-minute epic "Pyramids" to see Ocean's considerable powers at work. Lyrically, he compares the struggles of Egyptian pharaoh Cleopatra and a modern-day prostitute. Musically, he surfs over a wild roller coaster of styles, from '80s funk and EDM to prog rock and "Purple Rain."
Even at his most vulnerable -- in the wrenching ballad "Bad Religion," where he twists falsettos and soulful howls around "I could never make him love me" -- he does not hesitate to toss back lyrical bombs like "Only bad religion could have me feeling the way I do."
It's a sign that Ocean shows no fear -- the only way something as bold as "Channel Orange" could have been created.
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BOTTOM LINE Ambitious R&B that delivers swagger and emotion