Since the ’80s, when R&B began to lean more heavily on the candid bling-and-booty-centric tropes championed by its plain-speaking hip-hop cousins, the music’s subtlety, nuance, and imagination have faded. Conversely, rap has gained more widespread acknowledgement of its capacity for layered emotional expression, and content driven less by statements than by questions. At the nexus of this latest hip-hop/R&B intersection, Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange brings fresh dimension and long-absent humanity to both genres. It recalls Otis Redding, James Brown, Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder — even Prince: giants of American soul/R&B whose lyrical mix incorporated heartfelt social commentary alongside odes to love, passion, and loss. Ocean doesn’t have the vocal polish of current or past R&B icons, but his substance offsets any stylistic shortcomings, and renders them irrelevant. Vocal virtuosity’s fine for showing off, but a slick, shiny exterior can distract from what’s under the hood. Ocean brings substance with style, rather than style demanding to be considered substance. He speaks from the ’hood too, and also delves into the mixed blessings of bottomless wealth (“Sweet Life,” “Super Rich Kids”), blending genuine sympathy with implicit pity — never caustic, never obvious. The faces and lives on his debut are real, their stories intriguing. It’s an album on which id and ego converse, instead of teaming up and charging forward at full speed. Kanye West has stated that his aspirational bar is set at Stevie Wonder’s untouchable ’70s level. But despite a perfect Pitchfork score, his output — while more complex than the average Top 40 rap single — is still ego-driven and flossy: this is your father’s hip-hop. Whereas Kanye’s Stevie looks down at the world from a private jet, through Versace shades, Ocean’s crowd grapples with life the way Marvin did — from street level. Ocean isn’t reinventing the R&B wheel — and his recent coming out and acknowledgement of same-sex romances has certainly made him headline news — but he’s taking the shiny rims off and letting it spin a little more freely.
FRANK OCEAN | Paradise Rock Club, 967 Comm Ave, Boston | July 28 @ 7pm | 18+ | SOLD OUT | 617.562.8800