Album Review: Frank Ocean, “Channel ORANGE” (2012)

Whenever something starts getting a lot of publicity or hype in the media, I instantly feel wary.  It just seems that nine times out of ten, the movie, TV show, album, etc. isn’t really worth all of the attention and praise that I end up hearing for it.  Let’s take the movie Avatar for example: everyone told me it was the best movie ever and that it changed their lives.  I saw it and thought it was just a really pretty version of Pocahontas/Fern Gully.  Basically, I wasn’t that impressed.  And the same thing  happens over and over again.  That album heralded as the best thing since sliced bread?  Yeah, it was just okay.  The TV show that’s supposedly the best thing on television?  Yeah, it’s worth a few chuckles.  I just don’t trust when something gets overhyped.

So when I saw all the press surrounding Frank Ocean’s (whose real name is Christopher Breaux) debut, channel ORANGE, I already knew I’d be avoiding his album.  Sure, I had heard Ocean’s vocals on Jay-Z and Kanye’s The Throne album, and I was admittedly impressed by his choice to disclose his sexual orientation via an open letter on Tumblr, but that didn’t mean his album would be all that impressive to me.  I deliberately avoided him, even when all my friends were listening to his album and kept seeing tweets about how great his music was.

It actually wasn’t until I moved to Australia last summer that I even heard one of his songs.  Every year, Australia has a big radio countdown of the country’s hit songs and several of Ocean’s singles had entries on the list.  Triple JJJ listed his song, Lost, as number 8 on the countdown and after that, his music was everywhere- I couldn’t avoid hearing one of his songs at least four or five times a day at work.  And the truly surprising thing is that I actually liked what I heard.  Finally, my interest got the best of me and I bought Ocean’s CD.  And I really liked what I heard.

channel ORANGE
is a fresh blend of R&B and hip-hop music, with deeply emotional lyrics and subject matter (all of the songs were co-written/produced by Ocean and Malay, who has also worked with Alicia Keys and John Legend).  I was touched by the lyrics and impressed by the intricate production on the songs as well. For once, the hype machine hadn’t let me down.

The album begins with an intro, aptly titled Start.  There’s quite a few interludes dispersed throughout the disc, and as I’ve stated time and time again, I’m not a fan of interludes on albums.  I’m still not a fan of them here- though, as with Start- all of them are pretty minimal (this particular intro is just the sound of a video game starting up) and can be easily overlooked.

A swell of strings introduce the lead single and first song on the album, Thinkin’ Bout You.  The strings give way to a slow, R&B track, though Ocean does some rapping during the chorus.  The sound reminds me a lot of the songs on Drake’s debut and even calls to mind some of the stuff that Donald Glover tried out on his Childish Gambino mixtape in 2010 (in particular, the song “So Fly” sounds like a weaker produced version of this track).  The only difference between Ocean and Drake/Childish Gambino, is that Ocean actually sounds good on both the rap and R&B parts; he sounds at home rapping during the verses, and his voice is just as comfortable during the choruses, which was something that neither Drake nor Gambino were able to pull off quite as fluidly.  The song sounds like a typical R&B radio track, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing- Ocean handles the genre well, sounding like a seasoned pro.

I suppose up to this point in the album, nothing has really done much to impress me, but that changes with Super Rich Kids.  The slick beat opens with some “Benny and The Jets”-esque piano chords, and then fades into a catchy hip-hop song that’s basically about Ocean’s disillusioned experiences with a group of wealthy friends (“Too many joy rides 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”).  Rapper, Earl Sweatshirt (who’s part of Odd Future, the rap group that Ocean started off being associated with) provides a sleek rhyme during the track, and the polished production paired with the catchy chorus makes this track a favourite of mine.

One of the best songs I’ve heard in a long time (and the definite best song on the album) is the nearly ten-minute long masterpiece, Pyramids.  The song is split into what is essentially three movements, the first of which sounds like just another R&B song, though the seductive call of the name “Cleopatra” always gives me the chills.  Very quickly, the beat picks up and the song segues into a proper hip-hop track, as Ocean continues to sing about the betrayal of Ancient Egypt’s last pharaoh, Cleopatra (“The jewel of Africa/What good is a jewel that ain’t still precious/How could you run off on me?/How could you run off on us?”). A sparkly synth line introduces the next part of the song, and the narration has now switched to present time, as Ocean sings about a stipper/prostiute he’s invovled with, nicknamed Cleopatra.  He draws comparisons to his lady friend and the pharaoh (“Wake up to your girl for now let’s call her Cleopatra/I watch you fix your hair/Then put your panties on in the mirror, Cleopatra/Then your lipstick, Cleopatra/Then your six inch heels/Catch her/She’s headed to the pyramid”) in the lyrics, but a deeper meaning lies underneath as Ocean explores the relationship between the prostitute and her “pimp” and the general plight of a black woman’s place in society.  Perhaps all that isn’t relevant to every listener, but even if the lyrical content means nothing, the sound is so exquisite that it doesn’t really matter.  The beat in the last part of the song is just so smooth and inviting that I always get lost in the music when I hear this track and have listened to it on repeat several times since buying the album.  To make things even better, my favourite musician, John Mayer, makes his first of two appearances on the album and lends an enchanting electric guitar solo that fades the song out.   Ocean makes all three of these movements and the 9:53 minute run time work so exquisitely together, and none of it ever seems tedious.  I think this is what Justin Timberlake was aiming for on his last album, but Ocean does it so perfectly that I’m not sure if anyone could ever quite emulate it and get the same results that Pyramids does.

Frank Ocean

The other big standout track on the album is the autobiographical ballad,  Bad Religion.  This is one of the songs that started a lot of speculation about Ocean’s sexual orientation, and it was due to all of the questioning that Ocean decided to directly address the rumors via his Tumblr and openly state his bisexuality.  The meaning of this song is pretty clear, as Ocean paints a perfect picture of riding alone in a taxi on a dark, cold night and confessing his “sin” to the only person he can- his taxi driver (“Taxi driver/You’re my shrink for the hour/Leave the meter running/It’s rush hour/…If it brings me to my knees/It’s a bad religion/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”).  Again, a duality in the song’s meaning is exposed as the “him” Ocean refers to in the chorus is both a reference to his unrequited lover and the unrequited love he feels from God. Though I don’t personally identify with Ocean’s feelings, they are expressed so perfectly on this song that I couldn’t help but feel for him.  And that being said, I do feel like this could probably be a very important and personal track for those that may be personally struggling with their sexuality vs. religion.  The organ played throughout (which is another obvious play on the lyrics/song title) and Ocean’s extremely heart wrenching delivery give the song even more emotional depth, truly making it one of the most honest, heartbreakingly beautiful songs I’ve heard in a very long time.

Pink Matter
is another favorite of mine.  The lyrics are bit more vague here (“What if the sky and the stars are for show/And the aliens are watching live/From the purple matter/Sensei went quiet then violent/And we sparred until we both grew tired/Nothing mattered”), but it’s really the atmospheric sound and Jimmy Hendrix feeling to the music that I enjoy more than anything.  Ocean’s voice is actually at it’s best here, and any doubts that he has a talent for singing could instantly be removed after hearing him tackle some of the bigger noteson this track.  He’s no Pavarotti, or anything, but he definitely has the vocals to rival his R&B contemporaries.  I’m surprised a bit by how much I enjoy the appearance by Outkast’s Andre 3000; most times, I’ve found his guest rap appearances a bit unnecessary, but it actually works well here and his smooth rhymes actually add to the song.  The track fades out with more Hendrix-esque electric guitar (which sound like John Mayer again to me, though he’s not credited).

Every song isn’t as epically impressive as the big standouts on the album, but the remaining tracks are still good.  Lost has a stereotypical R&B/hip-hop sound, but still boasts an incredibly memorable chorus (“Girl, you know you lost/Lost in the heat of it all/Lost/Lost in the thrill of it all/Miami, Amsterdam, Toyko, Spain…Lost/Los Angeles, India, lost on train…lost”) and nice vocals from Ocean.  Likewise,Sierra Leone has a similarly typical R&B sound, with most of the song consisting of Ocean whispering the lyrics during the verses before singing them.  There’s nothing necessarily bad about the track, but the stereotypical silky R&B sound has been done time and time again, and there’s nothing new here.  Neptunes producer, Pharrell, lends his production talents to Sweet Life, a breezy track which was also the album’s third single. The carefree, island-holiday-in-the-sun feeling of the track works well, but again, there’s nothing revolutionary to be heard on the track.  Pharrell’s production doesn’t do much to spice it up either- in fact, this doesn’t even sound like a typical Neptunes track to me- I wouldn’t have even guessed Pharrell had a hand in it, had it not been for the fact that he’s listed in the production notes.

Surpisingly enough, even a few of the interludes are worthwhile.  White is an guitar-only track, that marks John Mayer’s second appearance on the album.  I actually love this interlude- Mayer’s guitar is so impressive, that it sounds like it’s singing, and the snapping that accompanies it gives off a very jazzy, relaxing vibe which I absolutely adore.  The peppy, Motown sound heard on Fertilizer is similarly enjoyable, and I wonder why Ocean didn’t go ahead and develop the 40 second interlude into a full-length song.

The disc comes to a close with one last song and another interlude.  Forrest Gump was the other track that led to the “is he gay?” murmurings, due to the references of being in love with a man throughout the track.  My only thoughts about the song prior to hearing it was that the title was odd, but it turns out that I actually like the smartly-written Forrest Gump comparison/metaphor (“Forrest Gump, you run my mind boy/Running on my mind boy/Forrest Gump”).  I even love the whistling that Ocean does before the track fades out.  All controversy aside, I really just find the song to be a harmless, albeit extremely catchy, love song.  The final interlude, End, is just a composition of background noise (footsteps, a whispered conversation, static) and snippets of a song Ocean previously released, titled Golden Girl.  Again, the interlude is pretty unnecessary, though I suppose it ties things together nicely since the album began with a similar intro.

After listening to channel OCEAN, it’s easy to see that Frank Ocean is an extremely talented musician.  Not only does have excellent vocal ability, but he’s also an exquisite, thoughtful songwriter, and producer.  The praise and accolades surrounding the album (as well as the four Grammy nominations and Best Urban Contemporary Album win) are well deserved and I’m definitely looking forward to seeing where Ocean’s career goes next.

Rating: 256px-4.5_stars.svg

Track List
1. Start
2. Thinkin Bout You
3. Fertilizer
4. Sierra Leone
5. Sweet Life
6. Not Just Money
7. Super Rich Kids (f. Earl Sweatshirt)
8. Pilot Jones
9. Crack Rock
10. Pyramids
11. Lost
12. White (f. John Mayer)
13. Monks
14. Bad Religion
15. Pink Matter (f. André 3000)
16. Forrest Gump
17. End

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