Channel Orange (released digitally July 11, 2012)
Two weeks ago, Frank Ocean stood as R&B’s last great hope – an artist who many hoped would resurrect the soulful, pivotal genre that’s currently dying a painful dubstep death.
One week ago, Frank Ocean rocked the music industry by revealing that he’s bisexual – the first high-profile R&B and hip hop artist to do so. Attention shifted from his craft to the fallout – would Ocean find a new audience, or would the staunchly homophobic hip-hop culture tear him apart?
This week, Frank Ocean released his studio debut and our attention is back on the music, or at least it should be. Instead of feeding the debate about who is under Ocean’s sheets, let’s talk about how Channel Orange is reviving – and evolving – R&B.
“Thinking Bout You” leaked online seemingly ages ago, and despite its age it definitely deserves inclusion in this set. Ocean longs for his lover with an exquisite falsetto that adds beauty to his anguish. On “Pilot Jones,” Ocean rides a beat that’s so minimalistic that the vocals almost sound a capella. Meanwhile, “Sierra Leone” revels in a laid-back sensual groove that’s been missing since Maxwell left us. Sometimes, though, Ocean tries a bit too hard to honor the veterans – “Super Rich Kids” sounds more like he’s mimicking Prince than paying tribute.
When it comes to song themes, Ocean doesn’t reinvent the wheel. The usual themes of sex, love and indulgence are all here but they’re packaged quite differently. Ocean’s strength is his vivid imagination and deft songwriting. “Lost” is a relatively upbeat pop song but listen closely and you’ll hear Ocean trying to cope with his drugged-out lover. “Pink Matter” (with Andre 3000) is such a hazy mind trip that even Ocean gets lost in his own thoughts, but you hang on every word, trying to decipher his musings. “Monks” is a hodgepodge of religious imagery, capped off with Ocean and his lover running through the jungle as they escape medevial warriors that sound like they’ve been pulled from Game of Thrones. Ocean challenges his listeners to keep up with his journey – if you want simple metaphors, go listen to the girl at the bar who’s been there too long.
No song is more complex than “Pyramids.” Clocking in at about 10 minutes, Ocean details the escapades of his “Cleopatra.” Halfway though the song, his beauty morphs from seductive temptress from a foreign land to alluring stripper from around the corner. This is no “Remember the Time.” Amazingly, the beat transforms along with the woman, moving from sultry pop tune to club-ready stripper track. It’s 10 minutes of masterful storytelling.
By the end of the album, you’ve forgotten all about Ocean’s sexual revelations until the final few tracks. Ocean subtly wrestles with his sexuality on “Bad Religion” and not-so-subtly finds himself exasperated with the “boy who keeps running through his mind” on “Forrest Gump.”
Whether those songs open doors for Ocean or slams them in his face is pretty irrelevant. Channel Orange stands as a triumph in artistic expression. Judge Ocean by his work, not his bed mates.
Best tracks: “Thinking Bout You,” “Pyramids,” “Lost”
4 stars out of 5