By JON PARELES
Frank Ocean got a superstar’s welcome at Terminal 5 on Thursday night. A chant of “Frankie! Frankie!” and screaming girls greeted him when he walked onstage. Roars of recognition met the beginning of each song, and a major contingent of the audience sang along through every verse and chorus. It was a show of fervent devotion to a songwriter whose official debut album, “Channel Orange,” was released just two weeks ago and whose songs aren’t radio-ready jingles. They’re aching, convoluted songs about love and loneliness, and the crowd was eager to comfort him.
Mr. Ocean taking in the scene at Terminal 5 on Thursday night. "Channel Orange," his debut album, was released two weeks ago.
Mr. Ocean, 24, isn’t exactly a debutant. He has toured as a member of the hip-hop collective Odd Future, bringing some heart and R&B melody to their taboo-busting rowdiness. He collaborated on songwriting for Justin Bieber and Beyoncé. And last year he released a free album-length mixtape, “Nostalgia, Ultra,” that introduced his doleful introspection — and an ear for bands like MGMT and the Eagles — in its own right. The crowd knew all of those songs too, including every rhyme of “Novacane,” which laments a culture of numbness and artificiality in the bedroom and on the radio: “Every single record, Auto-Tuning/Zero emotion, muted emotion, pitch-corrected computed emotion.”
In a pop era of pile-driver dance beats, Mr. Ocean is a steadfast ballad man, with open echoes of self-guided, innovative R&B songwriters like Prince, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Maxwell, Erykah Badu and particularly R. Kelly and his way of writing melodies that hover between speech and song, asymmetrical and syncopated. Mr. Ocean’s tunes rarely move faster than midtempo, and he keeps the rhythm section subdued. He opened his set backed only by acoustic guitar, singing Sade’s “By Your Side,” which promises the kind of constancy he never receives in his own songs.
From there it was all yearning and misgivings, fraying connections and regrets. He sang and rhymed about temptations and betrayals: empty lives of luxury in “Super Rich Kids,” addiction in “Crack Rock” and nuclear apocalypse in his rewrite of Coldplay’s “Strawberry Swing,” in which he’s left behind while his lover takes a spaceship to another world. The ambitious, suitelike “Pyramids” leaps from extolling the ancient Cleopatra to a conflicted longing for a modern Cleopatra who works at a strip club called the Pyramid.
Mr. Ocean’s voice is a slender but resolute high tenor that, surprisingly, sounded stronger onstage than it does on his recordings; he had easy command of his falsetto, too, although he sometimes handed off a verse to the women in the audience. His band members were in a semicircle at some distance from him, providing a self-effacing backup as he emoted at center stage and the songs built to organic, soulful peaks.
Mr. Ocean came across as straightforward and earnest, but there was some slyness too. He mentioned that he had gotten “a little bit of trouble” over a song. It was “American Wedding,” from “Nostalgia, Ultra,” which placed new lyrics about the superficiality of modern marriage and divorce atop the Eagles’ “Hotel California.” The Eagles pressured him to remove the song from the mixtape. So onstage he excised the Eagles from the song, with his guitarist playing slow chords suggesting Prince’s “Purple Rain” instead.
The biggest roar came when Mr. Ocean performed “Bad Religion,” a song lamenting an unrequited love for a man. Just before the album appeared, Mr. Ocean revealed on his Tumblr site that his first true love was for a man. “It was my life, you know?” he said onstage. “And I felt the need to say that, so I did.” Over hymnlike organ chords, Mr. Ocean confessed, “I could never make him love me,” leaping to a perfect wordless falsetto peal. Anything but numb, the moment was pensive and vulnerable, and gratefully shared.