Frank Ocean ‘Channel Orange’ – Review

22 Jul

Frank Ocean’s name doesn’t appear on the artwork to ‘Channel Orange’, his official debut album. He’s a storyteller, therefore having his name on the front would merely detract attention from the characters who apear within. He wanted to go further and have his name divorced from all kinds of promotion and advertising, which goes to emphasise his desire to let the music speak for itself. But then a week before releasing the album, Ocean posted a cryptic and beautifully written confessional statement online about how he once fell in love with a man. Whilst such an act can hardly be considered a piece of marketing or promotion (due to the undercurrent of homophobia in hip hop/r&b) it’s timing can’t have been a coincidence, and it had the effect, desired or not, of putting the name FRANK OCEAN very much in the public domain. Why go to such lengths to seperate your name from an album’s promotion, only to release a statement that makes sure your name is trending like crazy in the week leading up to the release?

Here we have the contradiction at the heart of ‘Channel Orange’, because whilst Frank pens brilliant stories, with brilliant characters, his personality is so strong and distinctive it can’t help but overshadow everything else.  On the one hand ‘Channel Orange’ is a perfect piece of escapism; Frank wrote some songs about people whose problems are so massive they overshadowed his own demons for a while. But then the rest of the songs on this album are blatantly, inescapably first-person – he’s admitted as much. ‘Channel Orange’ is equal parts escape and release, and sometimes It’s hard to tell what is personal and what is fantasy, what is experience and what is imagination, and that’s one reason why it’s so captivating. He switches from heart-wrenching confessionals like ‘Thinking ‘Bout You’ and ‘Bad Religion’ to stunningly well observed narratives such as ‘Super Rich Kids’ and ‘Crack Rock’ at the drop of a hat, only sometimes you can’t tell when the hat’s been dropped. A song like ‘Forest Gump’ may be written from the perspective of a female character in the film, but you can’t help but instinctivly feel how much Frank relates to the character in lines like ‘you run my mind boy, run my mind.’

His slow burning r&b approach to music certainly makes a nice bedfellow with the confessional poetry he writes, and his vocal delivery never wallows or looses control; Frank has a considered, restrained approach to singing, where the voice quivers but never cracks. This allows him to step out of the emotional arena at times and take on the role of objective observer, as on ‘Super Rich Kids’ where his voice makes him sound involved without being too close and questioning without being critical. This song is just one of countless examples of Frank’s uniquely ambitious and deeply thoughtful lyrics. The song describes the lives of wasted, rich teenagers, and like most songs on this album it includes puns (‘too many bowls of green, no lucky charm’) half-rhymes (‘too many white lines and white lies’) double entendre (‘This shower head feels so amazing’) metaphor (‘high enough to touch the rim’) and other literary devices that are rarely used by artists in any genre, let alone one as restrictive as r&b.

The album’s peak is ‘Pyramids’, a ten minute epic that’s more ambitious and groundbreaking than anything else you’ll hear all year. The song’s lyrics draw a parallel between ancient Egypt and modern-day America. He makes the connections through elaborate wordplay; for example cheetahs (a common pet of Egyptian queens) and cheaters (as in people who cheat on their partner), whilst Cleopatra is compared to a modern-day ‘queen’ who works in a strip club called the pyramid. The song’s themes, beautifully realised, are jealousy, passion, loss, betrayal and falling from an impossible height. Musically the song is just as creative, equal parts club banger, quite-storm, neo soul and contemporary pop.

Ocean channels the greats of the genre; he borrows the electric piano sound from Stevie Wonder’s classic period, the laid back swagger of D’angelo, the melodic turns of Marvin Gaye and the musical flourishes of Prince. Whilst he is clearly in the linegae of r&b singers, his tastes are eclectic (on his mixtape he sampled everyone from The Eagles to MGMT to Coldplay) and there are flashes of lo-fi indie, stoner rock and even psychadelia and gospel here. ‘Channel Orange’ also features occasional, and well selected guests. Pharrel Williams co-wrote ‘Sweet Life’ and it doesn’t half sound like a N.E.R.D song from 2004. Fellow Odd Future cohort Earl takes a turn on ‘Super Rich Kids’, spinning a verse that is surprisingly restrained and completely incomphrohensable (but totally brilliant). Even the long lost Andre 3000 turns up on ‘Pink Matter’, reminding everyone what the world is missing without Outkast (just where have they been for the past 8 years?!?!).

Is ‘Channel Orange’ a classic album? it’s too early to say – although It’s certainly an important one. It isn’t pefect however; It has a strange flow, beginning and ending with ballads, and it’s riddled with pointless interludes. Ocean has many personas and he’s got so many ideas that he often doesn’t know how best to organise and collate them. But who am I to criticise? His first release, ‘Nostalgia Ultra’, hinted at his potential but ‘Channel Orange’ suggests that he is easily one of the most talented young songwriters to emerge in recent years. He contributed the best songs to Beyonce and Kanye West’s last albums and now this record shows that he’s more than a match for those two established artists. It’s also worth pointing out how few reviews have mentioned Odd Future, the collective Frank’s a member of, and the collective who completely overshadowed his last album. If Earl and Tyler the Creator started out as the ones to watch in that group then they’re well and truely eating Ocean’s dust right now.

His first album was called ‘Nostalgia Ultra’ and it did what it said on the tin, essentially being a nostalgic mixtape, made up of laments to the past and featuring favourite, but overused, samples. This record’s title also references nostalgia but in a more subtle way; it’s called ‘Channel Orange’ because ‘orange reminds me of the summer I fell in love’. Frank’s still got an eye on his past but he’s now addressing that in more interesting, impressionistic, and (after that statement) honest, ways. It’s also worth noting how neccersary and modern this album sounds compared to ‘Nostalgia Ultra’. All things considered, regardless of it’s future importance or reputation,  this is the best record I’ve heard all year.




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