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).

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