After the heralded successes of Nostalgia, Ultra, Odd Future member and fast riser Frank Ocean has made his Def Jam major label debut a week early with the release of Channel Orange. Guest features on the album include include Andre 3000, Earl Sweatshirt (of Odd Future) and John Mayer, while production is provided by the headliner himself, Malay, Pharrell Williams and others.
Channel Orange Album Review
And then, in one Tumblr post, Channel Orange became something even more. Being gay is nothing particularly remarkable, approximately four million Americans identify themselves as gay, but in R&B, where exactly zero high-profile artists are openly gay, the news was rightfully viewed as historic. The knowledge of Ocean’s sexuality doesn’t change Channel Orange – Ocean isn’t a gay artist, he’s an artist - but it does shade it. In an album that quietly challenges what modern R&B is, and can be, the revelation of Ocean’s personal life is just another challenge to add to an already complex and fearless mix.
After listening to Channel Orange I’m sure it’s tempting for critics to show off their sophistication and compare Frank Ocean’s writing to Bret Easton Ellis, or say that his often lush songs are influenced by D’Angelo, and they wouldn’t be wrong. But in many ways Ocean’s closest artistic comparison is The-Dream. Dream’s tools may be electronic while Ocean prefers the organic, but both men are excellent storytellers that allow narratives to unfold not just over songs, but over entire albums (it’s easy to see the same cast of characters in both Sweet Life and Super Rich Kids). Neither are powerhouse singers, instead relying on their delivery and style to carry the day, and both possess a borderline genius ability to create hypnotic melodies and choruses (good luck getting Thinkin Bout You out of your head for at least a couple weeks after you first hear it). Or more simply put, if there’s another artist who would place an almost ten minute long song about a stripper on a major label album, it’s Dream.
But while comparisons provide an easy way to first understand Channel Orange, to truly delve deeper into the album you’ll have to let go of the instinct to cling to the familiar. Ocean’s certainly not interested in the familiar, but his true talent lies in making even his more avant garde tendencies easy accessible. By the time Bad Religion has come to a close it has incorporated church organs, strings, a piano, and live percussion into a story that interweaves the desires for love and religions, and yet in Ocean’s hands even such a complex final product is simply affecting. Similarly, if pressed I’m not sure I could even tell you what Sierra Leone is about, at least not coherently, but I do know it makes me feel something. Or in the reverse, Pink Matter is as sonically stripped down as it gets, coasting along on a simple guitar and synth line, and yet it’s going to take days, if not months, to understand the subtleties Ocean and Andre 3000 paint on such a simple canvas. Delivering an album that’s simultaneously worthy of its own Decoded and can be enjoyed in the background isn’t easy, but it doesn’t sound like Frank Ocean’s interested in doing anything the easy way.
As deeply, deeply personal as Channel Orange so often is, Ocean also channels the spirit of Marvin Gaye by turning R&B into protest music. Crack Rock is as close to hip-hop, combining banging percussion with a softer melody that undercuts both the sadness and anger that the War on Drugs has created: “F**king pig get shot, 300 men will search for me / my brother get popped, and don’t no one hear the sound.” So on Channel Orange Frank Ocean is both a writer of beautiful ballads and a writer of a revolution. He’s both a lover of men and women, both an observer of the human condition and an overwhelmed participant. Frank Ocean is too many things to possibly describe on this page, but that’s why he created Channel Orange. Instead of trying to describe his life in text we could listen to it, and rarely has anyone given us so much of their life to listen to. This is more than an album, this is a moment in music history. Enjoy it.
DJBooth Rating - 4.5 Spins