People only see what they want to see. Frank Ocean of all people knows this. You might know him as a member of infamous rap collective Odd Future. Those with their nose to the ground may be aware of his song writing credits for the likes of Bieber and Beyoncé. His features on Watch the Throne gave him some much deserved mainstream exposure. Then of course, he landed on everyone else’s radar after recently publishing a beautifully written – and no less brave – open letter discussing his sexuality. In light of this, it should come as no surprise that Frank Ocean’s debut album Channel Orange is less an individual channel per se; rather, the sonic equivalent of a Sky+ box.
Whether an attempt to reach the widest audience possible, or an opportunity to explore himself fully as an artist, the 17-track collection nevertheless feels disjointed. During the course of an hour, we’re presented with Frank as a social commentator on drugs, prostitution, false entitlement and religion – all whilst looking at love and life through rose-tinted spectacles. Indeed, the record’s grandness in scope is rivalled only by its broad range of styles, which as a result allows the weaker links to easily reach the surface.
Predominantly during the record’s first half, Ocean spends an unwarranted amount of time with “domesticated paradise” and a life of excess. In Super Rich Kids he talks of “wine we can’t pronounce”, “joy rides in daddy’s Jaguar”, and “white lines”. Even though they’re meant as satirical jabs, there’s an unavoidable sense that Ocean needn’t be concerned with hip-hop’s tired cliches; he’s above that. You can see it in the care he takes in making the album defiantly intimate despite its grandiose production; by appropriating the same mixtape-like structure used in 2011’s Nostalgia, Ultra, the record still feels wholly personal. This in itself is an achievement, as Ocean dances between brass orchestration (Sweet Life), jazz-funk bass lines (Monks), and dancefloor synths (Pyramids) – each executed with panache, but without much consideration to a common sonic thread.
What holds Channel Orange together is Frank Ocean’s flair for conveying both a musical and literal narrative – a crucial element demonstrated best through the track Bad Religion, in which the singer’s inner turmoil with faith and love is reflected in a tender string section and a mournful organ. Also emotive is the opening single Thinkin Bout You, as ambient synths ebb and flow with Ocean’s conflicted feelings about a past love. These isolated moments of genuine sentiment reaffirm Ocean’s undeniable talent as a songwriter.
Closer Forrest Gump is deceiving in its simplicity. Behind its catchy chorus and repetitive hooks, a darker, more secretive affair bubbles, camouflaged as a seemingly harmless reference to the 90s film. Similarly, Pink Matter reigns in the elaborate production to create a sensual atmosphere that suits Ocean’s croon and cheeky word play. It’s unsurprising that slow-jam veteran Andre 3000 enters the fray for a verse – in fact, it feels like a passing of the torch, especially since his presence fails to overshadow Ocean’s.
Plenty of comparisons have been made between this record and Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy – partly on account of 10 minute centrepiece Pyramids. Using propulsive club beats to soundtrack a strip club exposé, it’s definitely familiar territory. However, although a standout track in its own right, a lack of clear progression fails to justify its length. Where self-indulgence suited the concept of Kanye’s 2010 record, here it doesn’t feel necessary – especially given the effectiveness of Ocean’s simpler and shorter tracks.
Despite its lack of focus, Channel Orange mostly builds on the promise of last year’s mixtape. At such an early stage in his already impressive career, Ocean can’t be blamed for hopscotching through sub-genres of classic R&B. However, such is his talent that you can’t help but think: once Frank Ocean puts down the remote and combines his classic song writing with a singular vision, you can count on even more people tuning in to his channel.
Frank Ocean performing Bad Religion on Late Night Jimmy: