July 16, 2012
Two weeks ago, when 24-year-old Frank Ocean posted a letter on his tumblr page confessing his love for another man, the singer suddenly became more known for having the audacity to admit to such a love than for the critically acclaimed mixtape he released last year, or the dope songs he helped create with hip-hop royalty, Jay-Z and Kanye West. In a moment, which pronoun Ocean chose to use to describe the person he loved became bigger than his music. Fortunately, Ocean’s music can withstand the spotlight that has come with all of the new hype.
Ocean’s debut album, Channel Orange, is a masterpiece. That’s not to say Channel Orange will go down as one of the greatest R&B albums of all time, but it's easily one of the greatest albums of the year--especially since the market has been saturated with so-called R&B artists churning out pop and dance tracks ad nauseum. At this year’s BET awards, legendary soul crooner Frankie Beverly urged young artists to write what they want to write and to not “fall for the flavor of the week”. Ocean must’ve learned this a long time ago because he’s been delivering strong R&B joints since Nostalgia, Ultra and it’s continued on with Channel Orange.
With tales of love given but not returned, Ocean demonstrates that he is a crafty storyteller. Some have likened Channel Orange to an indie movie but I think it is more television than film. Listening to this album is like flipping channels on a lazy Saturday afternoon. One moment there are glimpses of 90210 on tracks like “Super Rich Kids” where he boasts about “Super rich kids with nothing but loose ends” and on “Sweet Life” when he dares to ask the rich and spoiled, “Why see the world, when you got the beach?” The next, it feels as if you’re tuned into an episode of Breaking Bad – with drug ballads and warnings about the price of addiction. On “Lost” he moans, “She’s at the stove / can’t believe I got her out here cooking dope”.
The jazz and blues sounds from New Orleans, Ocean’s hometown, have definitely influenced him but in many ways Channel Orange is a Southern Cali album. It's warm, laid-back, and smooth like the Los Angeles area where most of the album was recorded. It features production by Pharrell Williams and assists from John Mayer and André 3000, but surprisingly, the best feature is from Ocean’s fellow Odd Future member, Earl Sweatshirt, on “Super Rich Kids”.
There aren’t any terrible songs on Channel Orange but Ocean isn’t as clever on “Crack Rock” and “Forrest Gump” as he is on the rest of the album. He’s at his best when he’s speaking about the highs and lows of love which makes his songs relatable, no matter what sex he’s confessing his love to. The strongest tracks are “Bad Religion” and the 10-minute long “Pyramids” which travels from Egypt to the strip club.
With Channel Orange, Ocean proves he can make any subject sound good. The singer’s falsetto is reminiscent of Usher circa 2004, while some of the melodies are clearly sprung from the seeds planted by a young Stevie Wonder decades ago. Admittedly, Ocean’s vocals aren’t up to par with the best, but he's putting in work that might make his name uttered along with the greats anyway. His unbridled truth on this album is simultaneously chaotic and mellow but, put together, it somehow all makes sense.