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Born in New Orleans and still in his mid-20s, Frank Ocean has already written songs for major pop stars. He sang on the Kanye West/Jay-Z collaboration Watch the Throne, and he's been part of the tumultuous Los Angeles musical collective known as Odd Future. None of which quite prepares a listener for the beautifully moody music that dominates his new album, Channel Orange.
"Bad Religion," an anguished ballad about a difficult love affair, is one of several songs on the album that describe romantic feelings for a man. As he proved in a statement he released on his website — a wonderfully poetic meditation on time spent with someone with whom he shared an attraction four years ago — Ocean possesses a gift for vivid elation and melancholy, for emotions recollected in tranquility, shaped and ordered in various musical forms. Sometimes he starts off with a standard pop-music trope, such as the bit of alienation that sparks "Super Rich Kids," but by the time the chorus rolls around, he's crooning, "I'm searching for a real love" with full-throated ardor.
Channel Orange reminds me of early Kanye West on The College Dropout, or early Joni Mitchell on Clouds. The songs are confessional yet guarded, alive to all sorts of musical and lyrical possibilities, working in a number of genres within the space of a single composition, alert to both dream imagery and realistic observations of the world around him.
As a Hollywood transplant, Frank Ocean is into make-believe — and the question of how you create and deconstruct make-believe. His album looks beyond his own ideas and sensations to offer portraits of L.A. landscapes, the beach as well as sun-baked urban streets. He uses dreamy jazz riffs and What's Going On-era Marvin Gaye soul callbacks as he describes palm trees and strippers, the rare rainstorms and the indomitable will of Forrest Gump to create a lushly detailed album that's more open to the world than the work of many people his age. Then he dives deeper inside his head and shares all that hope, desire, confusion and ambition with you, too.