Review: Frank Ocean, “Channel Orange”

I’m an occasional contributor to Third Way Magazine, a magazine of Christian comment upon culture which is available by subscription.

Here’s a review of “Channel Orange”, the album by Frank Ocean, which originally appeared in the September 2012 issue. This was written whilst I had quite a heavy cold, so some of the logic is a bit muddled. Sorry about that.

Six days before the release of his debut album, Frank Ocean posted a letter on his blog in which he talked about falling in love as a 19-year-old, and that love being spurned because they were of the same gender. Previously known as a songwriter for Justin Bieber and Beyonce, and an occasional member of puerile rap clan Odd Future, in Frank Ocean we now had something quite special. Historic, even. A major new talent in the world of urban music had announced that they had had, if not a gay relationship, then certainly same-sex feelings – something simply shocking to the homophobic rap community.

The timing was impeccable. Six days for Frank Ocean to be roundly praised by the music press and villified by moronic hordes on Twitter, before the music came. A guaranteed way of building hype for an unknown act, or an artist pre-empting the babble and baring his soul?

The first reason to discredit the PR stunt angle is that the music is so good. Ocean has written songs for others and so – like Kanye West or the Neptunes – his first solo album is eccentric, boundary pushing and uniquely his. Rather than Pro-Tooled clinical perfection, he favours ‘70s-sounding electric piano, with washes of gurgling synths. The beats are minimal, restrained, and his vocals are impassioned and refreshingly autotune-free.

The album isn’t perfect – there are some scratchy radio skits, and some songs lack hooks, resting instead on scrappy surrealism – but, when it works, it’s reminiscent of Prince’s Sign O The Times in its ambition and range, with a little ‘70s Stevie Wonder thrown in.

Freed from making something for the charts, Ocean tells tales of hollow, neon-lit glamour. It’s the opposite of bling – the drugs aren’t fun, and riches bring only loneliness. When he namechecks brands – on Lost, he sings “Got on my buttercream silk shirt / And it’s Versace” – it’s with a sad-eyed resignation, a sense that he should know better.

The best example of Ocean’s approach to wealth is Super Rich Kids, a fascinating song about aimless, moneyed youths. Over a lolloping piano reminiscent of Benny & The Jets, Ocean’s Odd Future colleague Earl Sweatshirt raps “The maids come around too much / Parents ain’t around enough”, whilst Ocean sings of stocks and shares – and, bizarrely, shower-heads – before concluding “I’m searching for a real love”.

The album really becomes special, however, when it addresses Ocean’s pre-release revelations. Bad Religion places Ocean’s narrator in a taxi, where the taxi driver responds to the narrator asking him to “be my shrink for the hour” with “Boy, you need prayer”. The narrator says “If it brings me to my knees, it’s a bad religion”, before a masterful songwriting touch as he bends this concept back into his own situation, concluding that unrequited love isn’t much of a religion either: “Unrequited love / It’s nothing but a one-man cult… I could never make him love me”. Wrapped in swooping strings, it’s heartfelt and heartbreaking.

Similarly impressive is the deconstructed Motown strut of “Forrest Gump”, in which Ocean talks about his love, a boy “who wouldn’t hurt a beetle”, concluding “This is love, I know it’s true / I won’t forget you”. Ocean proves himself to be a writer of verve, equating the way the boy is “running on his mind” with the titular Tom Hanks movie. I mean, this isn’t your standard Usher joint.

It’s this eccentric openness that makes me feel this isn’t a PR stunt. Writing so movingly on unrequited love is a world away from the urban music of the clubs and the charts, and even further away from the violent and controversial imagery of Odd Future, and their de facto leader Tyler the Creator. Ocean is undoubtedly fond of using characters and narrative, often singing from different points of view (intriguingly, not all male), but it’s on tracks like Bad Religion, Forrest Gump and the opening track Thinkin Bout You, that the songs seem to drop the artifice a little. He’s singing from the heart.

Following the release of Channel Orange, Ocean has been opening for Coldplay in arenas, finding kinship in other acts famous for making emotive music for outsiders. The lines between genres have long been blurred, with Channel Orange similar in tone to Kanye’s work with Bon Iver – urban music taking cues from indie sensitivity. Frank Ocean has the urban grit thanks to Odd Future, and the songwriting chops thanks to his work with mainstream pop. How fitting that his coming-out should be the start of a creative blossoming into a dynamic, thrilling talent.

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