While most tuned-in reviewers, bloggers, and music fans discovered Frank Ocean with his critically-acclaimed mixtape nostalgia ULTRA, the majority of the mainstream were introduced to Ocean’s distinct croon when he provided the vocals to the incredible hook of Kanye West and Jay-Z’s hit “No Church In The Wild.” It’s obvious that his voice was built for stardom and top 40 radio. The only problem with that idea, however, is that Ocean wants nothing to do with that, as he skips the trends and marches to the beat of his own 808. Fans old and new will need to expect the unexpected on Ocean’s major label channel ORANGE, as its seventeen tracks showcase an artist who is much more conflicted and layered than perhaps originally thought.
Just a few weeks ago, right before his debut album channel ORANGE was to hit stores, Ocean went to his tumblr page and wrote a very personal, detailed, and touching note describing his first love. Something like this isn’t anything new, we’ve seen it before. Only this was nothing like we’ve seen before, as Ocean explained that his first love was a straight man unable to give that love back. In a genre that’s been predominated with feelings of homophobia, this was absolutely historic and incredibly brave. In typical Frank Ocean style, this letter wasn’t a declaration or affirmation of anything – it was a story of his first heartbreak. And just like his songs, this letter is equal parts eloquent and exposed; relatable and poetic. It comes to life on “Bad Religion,” one of channel ORANGE’s best tracks. The song is little more than Ocean’s haunting vocals over straining organ keys and diving strings, as Ocean reveals his pain in a cab (“Taxi driver, be my shrink for the hour….take the streets if you wanna/Just outrun the demons, could you?”). You can hear the ache in his voice as he closes out the song with “I can never make him love me…It’s a, it’s a bad religion/to be in love with someone who can never love you./A bad, only bad religion/Could have me the feeling the way I do.”
channel ORANGE or that letter isn’t about Ocean’s sexual orientation. Rather, that letter and song is just scraping the surface of Frank Ocean – just how vulnerable he is; that he is easily conflicted just as he is confident. The first sentence of his letter (“Whoever you are, wherever you are… I’m starting to think we’re a lot alike”) isn’t just addressed to his first love, it’s addressed to all of us. Ocean has the gift of creating music that taps into the emotions or humanity of anyone or anything. He tackles a parade of issues throughout the album – many of them share or are a result of an elusive love of some kind. He spins quite a few narratives throughout the album where he is the narrator rather than the focal point. Ocean is obsessed with money (the nonchalant flow of “Super Rich Kids,” which features a tongue twister of a verse from pal Earl Sweatshirt), sex (the hazy “Sierra Leone”), drugs (the jazzy “Crack Rock), or a combination of the three (the luscious pop of “Lost,” which features a beat that wouldn’t seem out of place on a Passion Pit or Foster The People album), but not in the way you’d think. He questions the very existence of the aforementioned, wondering if these things can replace happiness and often concluding that they go hand-in-hand with the unrequited love he so desperately wants to be reciprocated back instead.
Musically, channel ORANGE isn’t flashy, at least compared to what’s on the radio today. At times it can be understated and dreamy, letting Ocean’s vocals take center stage, such as heartbreak ballad “Thinkin Bout You,” in which his falsetto slays the chorus. Or take the laid-back lounge of “Sweet Life,” as Ocean examines the privileged cynically (“You’ve had a landscaper and a house keeper since you were born./The star shine always kept you warm./So why see the world, when you got the beach?”) in an attempt to nudge them to untangle their selves from their materialistic and sheltered world. And then we have moments where the music is transcendent and vivid, primarily in the case of the album’s nucleus, the ten-minute opus “Pyramids.” It’s three songs in one, beginning with shimmering synth keys that howl throughout the first four and a half minutes before dropping into a beat that’s equally catchy as it is dour. Each key change exemplifies the song’s theme, as Ocean is contrasting the lavish lifestyle of Cleopatra, the last pharaoh of Ancient Egypt, against the lifestyle of a present day stripper preparing for work at the Pyramid. Ocean’s balance and execution of the concept here is seamless and thrilling, making “Pyramids” an easy nominee for song of the year.
There are instances where Ocean sounds like the second coming of either Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, or Prince, musically and/or lyrically. From the electro-funk to downtempo moodiness, you can tell Ocean was a disciple of all three of those artists’ discographies. The woozy blues of “Pink Matter” is prime example here, as its seedy appearance is natural as Ocean meanders throughout the track until Andre 3000 lays down an excellent guest verse. And then there are tracks where Ocean is a free spirit, showing no concern in creating melody or structure in a song (The Roots-esque jam session that is “Monks” comes to mind). This is part of the reason I find Frank Ocean so fascinating – you can’t pigeonhole him into one genre, one style, or one personality (or character). The combination of his idiosyncratic creative mind with his highly personal and conflicted lyrics has resulted in something spectacular. With the release of channel ORANGE, Frank Ocean is on the path to becoming one of the most important musicians of the next 10 years.