Over the past couple weeks Frank Ocean has been grabbing a lot of headlines. Sadly, most of them display a headline about his coming out as bi in a letter that was so eloquently written it should be on display in museums. While his sexuality makes for tantalizing tabloid tales, it has very little to do with the quality of his music. I was much more interested in an article I read about the listening party Island Def Jam had for the record about a week ago. Ocean didn’t really want it to happen, he just wanted to release channel Orange into the world with as little hype as possible. After being pressed, he relented and had a small number of critics come to an office. He sat down his laptop on the table, and went to stand in the corner with his head down for the duration. Didn’t give any track names, didn’t answer any questions. Just let the music speak for itself. He’s a bit of a shy dude, but he’s confident about his songs and I dig that about him.
Anyone who reads this site with regularity probably knows that Ocean’s mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra just missed my top ten last year, clocking in at number 12. What he displayed there was his ability to put together a record that flows easily and uses samples to great effect. What he didn’t really show was his ability as a performer, as a lot of the songs are as much talking as singing-the big exception being “American Wedding.” Nobody was more surprised than I was that I enjoyed the mixtape like I did, but ever since I heard it I’ve been looking forward to his official debut release where we could get a real idea of who he is.
To that end Ocean delivers the goods. There hasn’t been a R&B artist so ambitious and fearless since R. Kelly hit the scene twenty years ago. He takes risks and puts together combinations that no other singer in this genre could. He really does make R&B for indie rock kids, and as music continues to cross-pollenate between styles, he’s taking the next step necessary to blur the lines even further. It’s a bit like when Beck got super popular when “Loser” came out. There was no name for what he was doing because he was it. Ocean is the only one currently making music like this.
I know I’m gonna catch a lot of flak for how I’m going to categorize this album, but it’s the truth in my eyes-channel Orange is this generation’s Songs In The Key Of Life. From top to bottom it’s all about love, and not just making it. Ocean doesn’t waste his time with over-sexed lyrics or any of that drivel. He’s more concerned with the heart of things, he’s a sensual guy, and he’s also a bright guy. He seems to be able to write about any topic, but chooses to focus on things like class warfare and unrequited love, and he does it with great aplomb.
channel Orange is a record that should be taken as a whole, but if you’re looking for highlights there are certainly some standouts.
First off I would say “Super Rich Kids,” which features Earl Sweatshirt, is a great example of what I was just talking about. It’s a song about spoiled kids who know nothing about the world-knowing basics like right from wrong or consequences for actions. Earl raps “Too many joyrides 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.” Ocean uses a bit of Mary J Blige’s “Real Love” for a chorus, and it fits the story well. Kids living their lives fast and furious with no responsibilities and no one around to set them straight.
You may have caught the best song on the record when Frank appeared on Jimmy Fallon to make his television debut last night. The performance of “Bad Religion” with The Roots and a large group of strings is something I could watch all day. It’s a song about how tough it is loving someone who could never love you. It works on a couple levels, as Ocean refers to a him over and over. He could be singing about a man he wants to be with who won’t be with him, a scenario he alludes to in his coming out letter. He could also be singing about the christian god, whose religion has not exactly been accepting of the LGBTQ community. The song takes place in a taxi cab, and this line represents the back and forth between Ocean and the driver, “But boy you need prayer”/I guess it couldn’t hurt me/But if it brings me to my knees/it’s a bad religion.”
“Pink Matter,” which features a great spot from Andre 3000 is almost all the way at the end, but it’s near the top in terms of quality. It gets deep pretty quick, with the opening verse posing this question, “What do you think my brain is made for/Is it just a container for the mind/This great grey matter/Sensei replied, what is your woman?/Is she just a container for the child? That soft pink matter/Cotton candy Majin Buu.” Ocean’s voice soars into a groovy bass line in the chorus, showing off the silky vocal chords he hides far too often. By the time Andre drops in, the song has already solidified it’s ranking on this record. They match up well stylistically, and 3000 feels like an extension of Ocean’s voice on the track.
I’ve mentioned only a few of the great tracks on channel Orange. If you’ve been paying attention you’ve probably already heard the masterful “Pyramids.” Frank Ocean is a real talent in every sense of the word. The music he writes feel wholly original (even when he’s sampling) and is universally relatable. Even if you aren’t a fan of R&B, Ocean has much to offer. His influences run as much to Radiohead or Vampire Weekend as they do to Barry White and D’Angelo. If my opinion is worth anything to you, give it a shot. The full album is streaming on his website, so it will only cost you the time it takes to improve your life a little bit.