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Frank Ocean: The bravest man in hip-hop

Frank Ocean is earning praise for opening up about his sexuality. But what does it mean for his career?

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If you didn’t know who Frank Ocean was a few weeks ago, you probably do now. On July 3, the 24-year-old R&B singer, who’s a member of the L.A. rap group Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, made headlines when he posted an early look at his album liner notes on Tumblr, in which he admitted that his ”first love” was another man. Almost instantly, his name was trending on Google. Within days, his national tour had sold out. Then, just after midnight on July 10, he made his network-TV debut, performing on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, and surprising fans with the announcement that his major-label debut, Channel Orange, was being released on iTunes a full week early. Within the hour, it had shot to No. 1.

Obviously, people are talking about Ocean’s reveal, which garnered praise from Beyoncé, Russell Simmons, Florence Welch, Flea, and longtime collaborator Tyler, the Creator. And for good reason: There aren’t many openly gay or bi-sexual artists in the hip-hop community. (Ocean, who has also dated women, hasn’t put a label on his sexuality. It’s not clear whether he intended his story as a ”coming out” or was simply being open about his past.) But that’s not the only reason people are anxious to hear his album, which includes a few love songs that were written about men. The New Orleans native has already earned his share of fans — he made a cameo on Jay-Z and Kanye West‘s single ”No Church in the Wild” last year, has written songs for Justin Bieber and John Legend, and appeared on EW’s own Best Albums of 2011 list with his mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra. Even the Fallon appearance was arranged well in advance of last week’s open letter. ”I consider him one of the most exciting new artists in music right now,” the show’s music booker, Jonathan Cohen, tells EW. “Frank’s appearance was on the books for almost two months.” And the president of Def Jam Recordings, Joie Manda, claims Ocean’s Tumblr post was not timed to coincide with the album’s release. ”Frank’s letter was in no way intended to impact the marketing of this record,” Manda tells EW. ”Like all things with Frank, it was a very personal decision.” (Ocean declined to participate in this story.)

Despite the strong early iTunes sales, it’s impossible to tell how Ocean’s sexuality will affect overall album sales until the official, hard-copy release on July 17. Good press doesn’t necessarily boost sales: While Adam Lambert recently became one of the first openly gay pop stars to debut at No. 1, country singer Chely Wright, who revealed to People that she’s a lesbian in 2010, believes the move cost her fans. Her most recent album, Lifted Off the Ground, debuted at No. 200, moving only 3,000 units; her previous album had debuted at No. 96.

The urban-music market might be even harder to crack. Some of Ocean’s own collaborators — including Tyler, the Creator, Odd Future’s de facto leader — have been criticized for using homophobic slurs in their songs. Still, Channel Orange seems destined for a top 10 debut and looks to equal (or surpass) recent albums by Tyler and Odd Future, which each sold more than 40,000 copies in their first week. If that means Ocean’s announcement isn’t really a game changer, well, maybe that’s a sign of progress in and of itself. GeeSpin, the assistant program director at New York’s hip-hop station Power 105.1, says the station played Ocean’s music before the news broke, and it’ll continue to do so. ”People are talking about whether or not the hip-hop community’s accepting it, but within my circle, it’s a nonstory,” he says. ”Hip-hop culture is generally perceived as more of an alpha-male, aggressive, macho thing — and that’s true — but America is changing. We have the first president to openly support gay marriage, and that [trickles down] into hip-hop.”

For now, Def Jam’s keeping its anticipation in check. ”Our only expectation was that Frank would deliver an incredible body of work, and he did,” says Manda. (Check out EW’s own review in the sidebar.) ”When people hear this album, they’ll understand what the fuss is all about,” he adds. ”It’s about the music, not the headlines.”

(Additional reporting by Nolan Feeney)