Review Summary: Firmly cements Frank Ocean's position as far and away the most talented member of the Odd Future collective.
It’s difficult for me to imagine Frank Ocean being in any way associated with the Odd Future collective. I mean no offence to fans of said collective, but I haven’t found anything particularly worthy of note from its members. For the most part they sound as you’d expect: young, amateurish hip-hoppers - Tyler, The Creator being the most juvenile and naive of the lot. It’s surprising, then, that the visionary of the group would be working in the realm of R&B, a genre that, aside from Abel Tesfaye, hasn’t seen much innovation for quite some time. Moreover, it’s fascinating to think of how accomplished Ocean already is at the young age of 24, and as daringly bold as it may sound, he seems destined to be one of the genre’s saving graces. I know, many have all but exhausted such sentiments, but Ocean’s brand of R&B warrants such unified hyperbole. On Channel Orange
, his first major label debut, Ocean finds the perfect dichotomy between experimentation and accessibility, making it seem like the logical progression from 2011’s Nostalgia, Ultra
, an album whose best songs borrowed from other established artists. This time, Ocean is creating something he can call his own.
Comparatively, Nostalgia, Ultra
played it a little safe, lifting samples from other artists to yield a new aesthetic meaning (“Strawberry Swing,” “Nature Feels"). Channel Orange
, on the other hand, is far more focused, inventive, and sounds like the work of an artist in their prime, even if it’s only Ocean’s first proper LP. Instead of asserting sexuality and themes of misogyny and ‘club life’ (or what have you) as many of his contemporaries are wont to do, Ocean presents us with themes of unrequited love and class disparity (“Super Rich Kids”). He’s something of a lyrical virtuoso in how he employs literary devices and details his songs through emotional confessionals. He’s also rather culturally and economically conscious; in “Super Rich Kids” he speaks of economic inequality in a scathing and humorous way: “The maid comes around too much / Parents ain’t around enough / Too many joy rides in daddy’s jaguar / Too many white lies – and white lines”. His cattiness is amusing and very refreshing, but Channel Orange
isn’t just a platform for his lyrical side. The best part is, his idiosyncratic style doesn’t overstep his ability to turn a ridiculously infectious hook; “Monks” and “Thinking Bout You” make nods to Usher’s heydey as Ocean suavely croons over hauntingly beautiful melodies. Elsewhere, he’s making allusions to movies and such (“Forest Gump”) and laying claim to some of the most infectious songs of the year like “Lost,” which features a chorus so hooky that it’s bound to get stuck in your head for days on end. And even though it champions catchy vocal hooks and melodies, Channel Orange
is, in a big way, R&B in an unconventional way; “Pyramids” is the most telling of this. At nearly 10 minutes, it undergoes several changes and is separated into two halves by a dark ambient piece very much in the vein of Boards of Canada.
Ocean doesn’t deserve all of the credit, however. Through the deft production handling of James Ho, the mastering of Vlado Miller, and several guest spots, Channel Orange
sounds varied and focused. Andre 3000 of Outkast lends a soulful vocal performance as well as electro-soul guitar playing on “Pink Matter,” and John Mayer (unsurprisingly) delivers some tastefully breezy guitar work on “White”. Guitar, strings, drums, organ, television and game interludes, etc., all help to make Channel Orange
the album it is, and the production is near flawless. Many of Channel Orange
’s songs also have a noir-esque motif to them, evoking references and themes from the ‘80s which will be immediately recognizable to most (looking specifically at “Bad Religion” and “ Sierre Leone”).
In short: Frank Ocean’s debut album is a huge success. It’s the kind of witty, tasteful R&B album that’s been missing from the scene, and it’s fated to be loved by purveyors of music criticism and anyone who comes across it. It’s hard to think of another man who’s risen from such inauspicious beginnings to, well, something so awesome, and this young star deserves all the laudatory notice coming his way. You’d have to be incredibly jaded about the genre to not appreciate this.