Frank Ocean opens up and breaks new ground in R&B music

Frank Ocean has become an R&B sensation this year

Frank Ocean has become an R&B sensation this year

Frank Ocean. In the dense, often depressing, fog of today’s music, he stands tall with his comrades in Odd Future as a lighthouse for music lovers everywhere to sail safely toward, untouched by the vulgarities and lowest common denominator marketing of pop culture. And yet, he provides plenty of songs anyone can (and will) easily sing along to, balanced with a unique, evolved perspective on soul.

It has been a year and a half since Ocean released “Nostalgia/Ultra,” the mixtape heard ‘round the world. Fans raved, critics frothed and A-list artists hoping for success by association rushed to get him to write or sing their tracks.

There is no better evidence of how high he is held in esteem than his work on Jay- Z and Kanye West’s “Watch The Throne.” It is the collaboration of the two most egomaniacal rappers in the game, but when you press play, Frank Ocean is the first voice you hear, not theirs.  

Fast forward to July 2012. When Ocean has announced his new album “Channel Orange,” everybody got excited. Teased by the leaked first single “Thinkin’ Bout You” and the just-released 10 minute soul opus “Pyramids,” critics predict a smash while fans are primed to make that happen.

The biggest thing Ocean ended up releasing was not bound to a melody, and contained not a hint of his music, but much emotion. 

“Four summers ago, I met somebody. I was 19 years old. He was too. We spent that summer, and the summer after, together. Everyday almost. And on the days we were together, time would glide…it was my first love,” Ocean said in an open letter on his Tumblr blog.

Hefty words, especially hefty when they come from someone in the rap/R&B genre, one that thrives on images of pimps, ladies’ men, and “don’t hate the player, hate the game”–an image, by the way, that Ocean never shied from. See “Songs For Women.”

However before getting swelled in the hype, let’s point something out. Frank Ocean is the first high-profile hip-hop/R&B artist to admit to being gay or bisexual, not the first ever. There are other openly gay artists in this genre who were out long before him, the easy example being Odd Future’s DJ Syd tha Kyd. Others include the Le1f and Mykki Blanco, both of whom have been mentioned in “Rolling Stone.”

Of course, none of those three are anywhere near Ocean’s level of fame and visibility, which sadly could be attributed to their orientation. If Ocean’s announcement does anything then it will hopefully shatter that wall to allow artists to be finally be judged on their talent and not their romantic or sexual preferences.

In the short term, coming out seems to have done wonders for Ocean. His acclaim has turned him into a critic’s darling and massive pop success. His performance at the MTV Video Music Awards on Sept. 6 was clearly the greatest spectacle of the night.

I saw Ocean perform July 19 at La Zona Rosa in Austin, an experience I can only describe as magical. His voice seemed to float above everything as the sound of a higher being unencumbered by the trivialities and sorrows of life. It was as if the audience were getting a brief peek into Paradise.

It reminds me of what Ocean said in his Tumblr letter: “I feel like a free man. If I listen closely….I can hear the sky falling too.” I did too that night. But for once, it is not something to be frightened of.