Frank Ocean: Channel Orange
The year 2010 was all about Kanye West’s over-the-top album, My Beautiful, Dark, Twisted Fantasy. Then 2011 went to Drake’s minimalist epic, Take Care. But 2012 is all Frank Ocean. His debut, Channel Orange, is an instant classic, one of those albums that you want all your friends to listen to and love and if they don’t, those friendships may have to be called into question.
Ocean came out to his fans, in a beautifully written confession on his Tumblr, shortly before the album’s release. Although this provides plenty of subtext, none of that is necessary to decode his simultaneously poetic and bluntly honest lyrics. On the stunning ballad, “Bad Religion,” Ocean, at his wits’ end, seeks solace in the advice of a taxi driver. “Be my shrink for the hour,” he begs, only to receive rote instructions to pray. Ocean concludes, “If it brings me to my knees, it’s a bad religion.” He quickly pivots to matters more secular, “This unrequited love/To me it’s nothing but a one-man cult/And cyanide in my styrofoam cup/I could never make him love me.” The “him” is both his lover and God. Ocean’s perfectly executed, line-by-line balancing act, bravely illustrates his own conflicted soul.
This is an intense record that includes the nearly ten-minute epic, “Pyramids,” which imagines the goddess Cleopatra reincarnated as a stripper, and the glass-dick drama of “Crack Rock.” But there are lighter pleasures to be found, like the breezy, soulful “Sweet Life,” and double-entendre pop ditties like “Forrest Gump.” Funk, hip-hop, rock, pop are all represented. No artist has had this much fun subverting genre expectations since Prince, in his early years. There are also notes of Stevie Wonder, Shuggie Otis, and with Ocean’s harmonic sophistication and liberal use of Fender Rhodes electric piano, Steely Dan. But he never sounds even remotely emulative, just informed.
Ocean isn’t an overly emotive singer, preferring to let the songwriting speak for itself, which is refreshing considering some of the horrible oversinging prevalent in modern R & B. Still, he knows when to lean on a word at the right moment. It’s more powerful because it comes after a deadpan delivery.
There’s not a bad song on the album and they all feel vital, part of a stylistic whole, even with such diverse collaborators as Earl Sweatshirt and John Mayer. Channel Orange manages to be catchy and raw at once. And because of Ocean’s unique and some would argue, revolutionary point of view, it’s an album that feels like it matters, with the weight of a new generation happily strapped on its back.