‘Channel Orange’ strikes perfect, paradoxical balances. It’s peaceful with definition, grand but restrained, and mature but relevant.
Ocean has a remarkable voice. It’s supple and graceful, but resonates – there’s a solidity that’s uncommon in today’s R&B. ‘Channel Orange’ is propelled by this; it’s damn hard to make a record with vocals this indulgent without it sounding flimsy. A lot of it’s pretty downtempo – see ‘Pilot Jones’, and Ocean wonderfully fits the restrained sound brought by the downbeat backing. The vocals are sophisticated, but also magnificent – experimental structure almost tips too far on ‘Thinking About You’ as Ocean hits a strained climax, but he’s a controlled guy – he pushes it just the right amount.
A standout is ‘Super Rich Kids’, but it’s difficult to work out why. I want to dislike Earl Sweatshirt: he’s painfully monotonous, but the intermingling of Sweatshirt’s drone with Ocean’s concentrated passion is stunning. It’s refined 80’s boogie music - post-disco modernized by current themes and sounds – “too many white lies and white lines” describes a nauseating juxtaposition of childish naivety and veracity. Ocean selects his features carefully: ‘Pink Matter’ has a steady, slapping bass that is thoroughly 3000, and Andre’s comfortable philosophizing is welcome along side Ocean’s exploration of sensitive topics. Periodical climaxes and plunges in tension are utterly convincing. It’s sinuous but episodic, and each episode is memorable, distinguishable from the last - the forlorn ‘Bad Religion’ from the escapist ‘Pilot Jones’.
Ultimately ‘Channel Orange’ is a reflection of Ocean. Not just lyrically (in fact, much of it’s pure fantasy) but also stylistically. NostalgiaULTRA was on a lesser scale, and it’s on this larger platform that Ocean’s creative authority signals the breath between his ambitions and his ‘Odd Future’ comrades’. He’s a likeable guy. But I think ‘Channel Orange’ is better understood if judged contextually. Frank Ocean’s bisexual, an announcement made shortly before his album’s release, and everyone’s fine with that – cool. Ocean’s sexuality permeates ‘Channel Orange’, though – ‘Forest Gump’ demonstrates a fondness of masculinity, the “so buff and so strong”. Frankly, it’s confirmation of our maturity as a society: we can accept not only a pansexual musician, but pansexual music.