Team Ocean

 I can listen to Frank Ocean’s voice for hours on end—and incidentally– I have been. Not only is his falsetto crystalline, his lower register has this fascinating way of sounding reedy and monotone, but yet so beautiful. It’s what made his breakout single, “Novacane” so aurally arresting. His voice sounded as numb as the emotions he described so effectively.

Ocean is having a Moment right now and deservedly so. His major label debut Channel Orange is out-of-this-world good. It gets better with each listen.

I was on Team Ocean ever since I heard “Novacane” and “Songs for Women” on Nostalgia, Ultra, his mixtape. It’s so rare to hear a song that tells a story in most pop music today, but especially in R&B. Historically, R&B has been the genre for lust, love, and heartbreak. Lyrics are usually pretty generic so the listener can insert himself into the narrative, nodding along to Al Green when he sings forlornly, “How can you mend a broken heart?”

What Frank Ocean does so well is provide the vivid, specific details.  An “ice blue bong,” empty condom wrappers.  As I’ve said before,  music trumps lyrics every time (it’s how I can love India.Arie’s “Complicated Melody” even though the words to that song are hella stupid.), but with Ocean, I can’t help but notice the lyrics–Ocean’s storytelling abilities are that good. If Ocean’s confession of unrequited love on his Tumblr wasn’t enough indication of this man’s writing chops, then songs like “Sweet Life” and “Super Rich Kids,” which have been compared to vintage Joan Didion and Bret Easton Ellis of all people, should do the trick.

Two thoughts have emerged during the past 48 hours that I have spent listening to Frank Ocean repeatedly.

1) Ocean is a legend in the making.This is one of the best albums to come out in a long, long time. It’s not hyperbolic to call it a game changer. It’s so unlike anything out there right now, especially in R&B and Top 40 stuff. Everything is tight– the lyrics, the music, the vocals, the production. And Frank Ocean is only 24 years old! What a bright, vibrant future! I’ve never had this experience before. Sure, I listened to Miseducation of Lauryn Hill and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, knowing that these albums were excellent, but I listened to Lauryn years after she had already had her Moment and flamed out in spectacular fashion, while Kanye was already an assured gamechanger by the time MBDTF came out.

But with Ocean, I’m listening to him, was listening to him, when he was a curio on many an indie blog , a tab, a Someone-to-Watch. Now I saw his powerful, tear-inducing performance of “Bad Religion” (a song that gets sadder and sadder with each listen) on Fallon, and I’m witnessing someone actually about to be on some next level Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder in the ’70s stuff. This is so rare. This only happens a few times every couple of decades. I was too young to really appreciate the ones that happened thus far, but with Ocean, I’m right there, witnessing pop culture history, finally old enough to really appreciate it all.

2) Will he keep it together?

I’m an emotional mess right now–blame menstruation–but I don’t think that was the only reason I legitimately started bawling when I listened to “Bad Religion.” Suffice it to say that Frank Ocean’s discography is not particularly uplifting. We like it for this, of course, but it’s hard not to wonder what making music about meaningless hookups, suicide, unrequited love and hallucinogens does to the psyche.  On May 16, Ocean posted on his Tumblr: Suicide letters are considerate.

The next post he backpedalled like hell: “Not doing that this weekend. Kids, please don’t do that this weekend. forgot i had influence for a minute.”

I actually saw the second post first and when I saw that, I was floored by the weird combination of sweet condescension and maturity in the post.

He’s right. He does have influence.

It’s silly (and futile) to judge someone’s mental well-being from a Tumblr post or some song lyrics, but it’s an understandable impulse.  Black R&B savants are a notoriously volatile bunch.

I want Ocean to last. I want him to be happy. I want him to thrive. Not even just for the music. For his own sake, really.


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