Artist: Frank Ocean
Album: Channel Orange
Label: Def Jam
Release Date: 7/10/12
Last week, Frank Ocean shocked his fans by revealing to the world that his first love was not with a woman, but with a man. He did so through a letter on his tumblr page that was penned just as poetic as many of the songs on his debut album Channel Orange. Thirty, twenty, or perhaps even just ten years ago, this type of move would’ve been career suicide for an artist in Frank’s shoes – shoes that are still fairly new yet have ran with the best of them including Kanye West, Jay-Z, Odd Future and Beyoncé. With that being said, it’s inevitable that Channel Orange’s sales will be somewhat judged by Frank’s courageous choice to come out right before the album’s release. However the album itself can only be judged based on one thing; the music, and this music is some of the best I’ve heard all year. In an interview with BBC earlier this year, Ocean said that he wanted this project to define him as an artist, and Channel Orange does just that. The album contains self-reflective stories of love, lust, money, and religion told through the distinctive electro-soul type of music that excluding The Weekend, only Mr. Ocean has seemed to have mastered.
Channel Orange is a colorfully cohesive body of work that is best enjoyed from start to end… literally as the albums opening track is called “Start” and the final song is appropriately titled “End.” “Start” is one of a handful of songs/interludes on the project that span just around 60 seconds, but Frank still manages to make some of these short snippets just as enjoyable as the full-length tracks. He even enlists John Mayer to play guitar on the minute and sixteen second “White.” The first full-length song that listeners are treated to is the single “Thinkin Bought You” where Frank flaunts a captivating falsetto reminiscent of Usher or even a young Marvin Gaye. Mr. Ocean also displays his exceptional talents as a songwriter on “Thinkin Bought You,” something that he exhibits throughout the entire album.
As the project progresses, Frank starts to sing about the lives of the young and financially privileged. He illustrates their luxurious but flawed lives to perfection on “Sweet Life” with lines like “You’ve had a landscaper and a housekeeper since you were born” and on “Super Rich Kids” with equally impressive lyrics like “Too many bottles of this wine we can’t pronounce… The maids come around too much / Parents ain’t around enough / Too many joy rides in daddy’s Jaguar / Too many white lies and white lines.” “Super Rich Kids” goes on to include an out-of-the-blue-yet provocative rendition of the chorus from Mary J Blige’s “Real Love” and a verse from Frank’s fellow OFWGKTA member, the always dependable Earl Sweatshirt.
However the vibe quickly switches from spoiled kids and sports cars to crack rocks and strippers, and by no means is that a bad thing. Frank takes listeners on a journey through the life of a crack addict on “Crack Rock” and then goes on to discuss a stripper and his relationship with her on the nearly ten minute track “Pyramids.” On an album full of gems, “Pyramids” arguably outshines them all. This joint right here easily contains the best production on album as the length of the song allows the beat to switch from the funkiest of funk to a smoother groove that eventually transitions into a tranquil guitar solo that concludes this masterpiece. Not only that, but the lyrics and songwriting on “Pyramids” are truly out of this world. Frank uses words like Cleopatra, cheetah, pharaoh, tomb, and jewels in the first half of the song to describe an ancient Africa like scene, which ultimately serves as a metaphorical prequel to his relationship with a stripper. At least that’s how I interpreted it, and that is the great thing about Channel Orange. Frank Ocean paints these beautifully detailed pictures of a variety of scenarios and emotions throughout the album, but occasionally leaves a few blank spots for listeners to fill in for themselves.
Ocean continues with the smooth crooning and thought provoking lyrics as he discusses religion with a taxi driver whom he appoints as his therapist rather than his chauffeur on the extremely introspective “Bad Religion.” Next Frank gets blessed with yet another godly verse from Andre 3000 on “Pink Matter,” a soothing melody that requires plenty of lyrical dissection between Mr. Ocean and 3 Stacks.
Right before the “End” of the album, Frank displays his genius once again for the final time on Channel Orange on the track “Forrest Gump.” “Forrest Gump” includes obvious references to the classic film starring Tom Hanks but also contains the most obvious reference to Frank’s bisexuality on the album as he sings lines like “Runnin on my mind boy” and “You’re so buff and so strong”. Like I said earlier, the beauty of this project may have been blinded by lines like these if Channel Orange was released say just a decade ago. Fortunately however, times are changing, and so is music and Frank Ocean, his courage and his vision are testaments to the ideal direction of both. It’s only summer, but if you made the case that Channel Orange is already the frontrunner for album of the year, I would probably have to agree with you.