TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Frank Ocean has written songs for Beyonce, Justin Bieber, and John Legend. Last year his mixtape "Nostalgia Ultra" attracted wide attention and acclaim. Now, Ocean has released his first major-label album, it's called "Channel Orange." Just before the release, he revealed on his Tumblr blog that his first love was a man, which made news in part because the hip-hop world is often homophobic. Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review of Ocean's album and his career thus far.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THINKIN BOUT YOU")
FRANK OCEAN: (Singing) A tornado flew around my room before you came. Excuse the mess it made, it usually doesn't rain. In Southern California, much like Arizona my eyes don't shed tears, but, boy, they bawl. When I'm thinkin' 'bout you. Ooh, no, no, no. I've been thinkin' 'bout you.
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Born in New Orleans and still in his mid-20s, Frank Ocean has already had an extensive career. He's written songs from major pop stars. His beats have appeared 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 the listener for the beautifully moody music that dominates this album "Channel Orange."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BAD RELIGION")
OCEAN: (Singing) Taxi driver, you're my shrink for the hour. Leave the meter running, its rush hour. So take the streets if you wanna. Just outrun the demons, could you? He said, Allahu-akbar, I told him don't curse me. But boy you need prayer, I guess it couldn't hurt me. If it brings me to my knees it's a bad religion. Ooh. This unrequited love, to me it's nothing but a one-man cult and cyanide in my Styrofoam cup. I could never make him love me, never make him love me, love, love...
TUCKER: That's "Bad Religion," one of the songs that describes romantic feelings for a man, an anguished ballad about a difficult love affair. As he proved in the statement he released online, a wonderfully poetic meditation on time spent with someone he was attracted to 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 the song "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.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUPER RICH KIDS")
OCEAN: (singing) Too many bottles of this wine we can't pronounce. Too many bowls of that green, no Lucky Charms. The maids come around too much. Parents ain't around enough. Too many joy rides in daddy's Jaguar. Too many white lies and white lines. Super rich kids with nothing but loose ends. Super rich kids with nothing but fake friends. Real love. I'm searching for a real love. Oh, real love.
TUCKER: Channel Orange reminds me of early Kanye West on "The College Dropout" or early Joni Mitchell on "Clouds." Alternately 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.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FORREST GUMP")
OCEAN: (singing) I want to see your pom-poms from the stands. Come on, come on. My fingertips and my lips, they burn from the cigarettes. Forrest Gump, you run my mind, boy. Running on my mind, boy. Forrest Gump, I know you, Forrest. I know you wouldn't hurt a beetle but you're so buff and so strong. I'm nervous, Forrest. Forrest Gump, my fingertips...
TUCKER: 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 rifts and his Marvin Gaye "What's Going On" era soul callbacks to describe 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.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large for Entertainment Weekly. Coming up, John Powers reviews a new documentary about the Chinese artist, political activist, and provocateur Ai Weiwei. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)