Brixton Academy, London

Music Review: Frank Ocean - hip hop opens its mind and its heart

When Ocean came out about his sexuality last year, the result was … warm acceptance and a new, wider audience for his angelic talents

Angels have no gender. In Christian art, chiefly as a result of a common interpretation of Matthew 22:30 (“At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven”), they are invariably depicted as either entirely sexless, or tacitly male with no sexual characteristics. This is why the sung falsetto is routinely described as “angelic”: it floats somewhere between the two genders, and its associations with chastity date back to the castrato eunuchs in Byzantine choirs.

Frank Ocean – a bisexual soul singer with, when he chooses to deploy it, a sublime falsetto voice – is some kind of angel, for sure. Not that his music is devoid of sex, exactly. On the contrary. But his songs are almost always above mere base lust, and concerned with the longing, rather than the act.

When Ocean came out about his sexuality with an impossibly beautiful Tumblr post which transformed him from outstanding talent to full-on hero in a few taps of a keyboard, many doom-mongers saw it as career suicide given that, as a member of the Odd Future/OFWGKTA collective, he was operating within the historically homophobic culture of hip hop. Instead, it turned out to be a career masterstroke, sealing his status as a cause célèbre among the liberal-minded for being so ruddy bloody brave (as Partridge would put it), and ensuring that when he released his full debut album, ears other than the usual hip-hop demographic would be listening.

He still needed to deliver, of course. He did it, in scintillating style. The 25-year-old, born Christopher Breaux and displaced from his native New Orleans to Los Angeles by Hurricane Katrina, turned out to be something of a modern soul genius. Channel Orange was, according to an HMV poll-of-polls, the critics’ album of 2012, and rightly so. An immeasurably advanced follow-up to the previous year’s promising mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra, it refracted the creamy glow of early Prince and N*E*R*D’s In Search Of... through the prism of the retro-futuristic aesthetic of the Drive soundtrack. It was nevertheless unafraid to venture into more fashion-risky styles, such as the steady Seventies AOR plod of “Super Rich Kids”, which is essentially Billy Joel meets Steely Dan.

And its gloriously poetic lyrics didn’t attempt to hide Ocean’s sexuality. Stand-out track “Thinking About You” was a first-love memoir whose object is addressed as “boy”, “Forrest Gump” expresses his adoration of a gentle giant with learning difficulties, and “Bad Religion” recounts an unrequited crush on a devoutly Muslim male taxi driver. Conversely, “Pyramids” is about an explicitly male/female relationship “You say it’s big, but you take it/Ride, cowgirl!” (Yeah, sometimes his songs really are about the sex).

It is, quite simply, neck and neck with Janelle Monae’s The Archandroid as the most groundbreaking soul album of the decade so far. And Britain’s had a year to fall in love with it, so anticipation for his UK debut is ridiculously high. Before he even appears, the gang of ostensibly hetero lads in front of me are already bowled over, and begin making tentative confessions. “I’ve never had a man-crush before, but ...”

When the by now almost-mythical Ocean appears, he barely needs to do anything. So he doesn’t. Half-hunched in the same spot on the stage, he’s not exactly Mr Personality. When he does talk, it’s a bassy mumble, indecipherable apart from the information that he loves London. The back-projection is barely any more eventful, although there is something strangely mesmeric about watching helicopter footage of the gold BMW from the front of Nostalgia, Ultra driving slowly across Death Valley to a never-nearing horizon for a full hour.

It doesn’t matter. It’s Frank Ocean, playing Frank Ocean songs, and right now that’s plenty. His band, including a drummer who looks unsettlingly like Nation Of Islam hitman Brother Mouzone from The Wire, a two-man horn section and someone playing an enormous vintage wooden synthesiser, do a superb job of recreating his two releases to date, and the crowd do their part to carry the shy, reluctant superstar. There’s a wonderful moment in “Novacane” when Frank, reminiscing about a toxic (and intoxicated) relationship, sings “Cocaine for breakfast...” and the entire audience, knowing their role, shout “Yikes!”

Most exciting, however, is the unveiling of new material, raising the enticing prospect that Frank Ocean’s qualities – musical and “star” – can only rise from here.

It was Public Enemy’s Chuck D who famously described rap music as “black CNN”. And, of course, if you watch rolling news for long enough, the same stories come around again and again. Take The Pharcyde, for example.

The South Central act, who had feet in the alternative, backpacker and jazz-rap camps during their Nineties heyday, have sat out dozens of shifts in fashion (albeit with numerous line-up changes) and survived long enough to be beneficiaries of the truth that if you wait around long enough, your time comes back around.

Not just because their brand of peacable, post-Daisy Age rap feels more current than chronologically more recent acts (God, how long ago does 50 Cent seem now?), but because they’re in the UK to tour a classic album whose tenth track, “Mr Officer”, deals with racial profiling of motorists at the exact moment that stop-and-search policy is back in the news.

In the circumstances, you can’t begrudge them a victory lap 22 years on from the album in question, Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde. Especially when, on a hot summer night, it involves delicious displays of old-skool turntablism, a bit of break dancing, the guilty snickers of “Ya Mama”, and in one liberating moment, allowing 600 people to chant “Damn, I wish I wasn’t such a wimp ...”

NEXT WEEK Jay-Z and Justin  Timberlake vie for Olympic gold

Critic’s choice

Chart-pop bad girl Ke$ha stops brushing her teeth with bourbon just long enough to play a sole UK show at Brixton Academy, London (Mon). Meanwhile, DIY dark-cabaret icon Amanda Palmer brings her Grand Theft Orchestra to the Academy, Bristol (Mon); Institute, Birmingham (Tue) and Picture House, Edinburgh (Wed).

 

Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

music
Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

radio
Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
    Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

    Scarred by the bell

    The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
    Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

    Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

    Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
    The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

    The Locked Room Mysteries

    As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
    Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

    How I made myself Keane

    Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

    Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
    A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

    Wear in review

    A look back at fashion in 2014
    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

    Might just one of them happen?
    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced