Music

Frank Ocean: channel ORANGE

It's hard to both live up to hype and craft something distinct in a young career already brimming with excellent releases, but channel ORANGE finds Frank Ocean doing so with a class unlike anyone in music these days.


Frank Ocean

channel ORANGE

Label: Def Jam
US Release Date: 2012-07-17
UK Release Date: 2012-07-23
Online Release Date: 2012-07-10
Amazon
iTunes

The promotion of channel ORANGE as Frank Ocean's "solo debut", while technically accurate, is something of a disservice to the material he's already put out. His brilliant 2011 mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra had the strength of a studio recording, despite its free-over-the-internet release. The fact that Ocean took it upon himself to put the music out after his current label Def Jam sat on it for way too long made it an even richer experience. Any of the commercialized aspects of purchasing LPs were done away with, which allowed Nostalgia, Ultra to be a special gift from Ocean to his ever-growing fanbase. It was one of 2011's best releases, so much so that major publications like Time gave it notice. In the sea of hype rising as a result of this "debut", his pre-channel ORANGE stuff is getting drowned out.

Admittedly, mixtapes are a particularly new breed of release; figuring out exactly how they correspond to other recordings in an artist's discography is thus a tenuous exercise. They can range from serious album to fun-but-forgettable excursions. Many are designed as experiments rather than records; take, for instance, Wick-It the Instigator's clever mash-up of the Black Keys' Brothers and Big Boi's Sir Luscious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty. Everyone would be comfortable with calling that a "mixtape" in the sense that it sounds like a cobbling, a hodgepodge. But as varied as Nostalgia, Ultra was in its composition (the random interlude involving Radiohead makes me giggle every time), it had a flow that differentiated it from a one-off. channel ORANGE is very good, but Nostalgia, Ultra remains Ocean's true debut. The ghost of the latter is evident in the former; the little interludes littered throughout the mixtape are brought back here, though the comedic effect is absent.

That is but one of the many ways Ocean's maturity as a songwriter is made evident on channel ORANGE. His early work was serious, no doubt; the heartbreak of "American Wedding", the mad genius straight-rip of the Eagles' "Hotel California", is still poignant to this day. But unlike before, he is shifting toward a literary eye for his surroundings. channel ORANGE is, to attribute a simple tag to it, a collection of Los Angeles songs. The burgeoning metropolis, home to Ocean and his cohorts in the hip-hop collective Odd Future, is put under a sympathetic but scathing microscope. "Super Rich Kids", a dryly funny account of the ennui brought about by wealth, can count Bret Easton Ellis among its kin. The track, featuring a verse by the elusive Odd Future rapper Earl Sweatshirt, has the album's best chorus:

Too many bottles of this wine we can’t pronounce

Too many bowls of that green, no Lucky Charms

The maids come around too much

Parents ain’t around enough

Too many joy rides in daddy's Jaguar

Too many white lies and white lines

Super rich kids with nothing but loose ends

Super rich kids with nothing but fake friends

Ocean deadpans this atop an Elton John-like piano vamp, the ultimate jaded narrator. The narration throughout is unmistakably his, but what's remarkable is his ability to wear many hats. There may be eight million stories in the Naked City, but the City of Angels has its tales to tell. Frank Ocean's L.A. is a city with systemic flaws, lost souls, and broken hearts, but he never stops making it his.

Additionally, a public statement made by Ocean on his Tumblr feed last week confirms how personal a recording this is. His coming out as bisexual is given concrete, unforgettable form in "Bad Religion". You'd be forgiven for thinking after the first ten seconds that he's doing another Coldplay cover following his take on "Strawberry Swing"; the organ fill does sound eerily close to "Fix You". But whereas the schmaltz of Martin's lyrics sound deep but ring hollow, Ocean's taxicab confessional about a man he's in love with is absolutely devastating on both counts. "This unrequited love / To me it's nothing but a one-man cult", he says, echoing a gut-punch nearly all of us are likely to feel at some point. He takes a more nostalgic approach to this topic on "Forrest Gump", but with no less depth of feeling. Like Stevie Wonder and other R&B greats before him (yes, the comparisons are earned), he's a truly emotive voice, one that puts him in a class far above the majority of his peers. Even the technical prowess of the Weeknd's Abel Tesfaye lacks the distinctive voice Ocean has made for himself. Plus, while Tesfaye's reticence in the press and on stage has been widely documented, Ocean has a subtle charisma that's served him well in multiple venues. The all-out craziness of Tyler, the Creator could threaten to overtake Odd Future were it not for Ocean's croon.

channel ORANGE is not without its odd choices, however. Included here are two previously released though now reworked tracks: "Thinkin About You" (now with strings) and "White" (now with a bluesy guitar line by John Mayer). These aren't bad tracks, but their inclusion here seems unnecessary. This is a 17-track album that runs close to an hour; there's enough here to pack a punch absent their presence. "White" does add to the L.A-ness of all this, but it's a minor piece in comparison to some of the other interludes, namely the brief but catchy hook of "Fertilizer".

In the end, whether you take this or Nostalgia, Ultra as his "real debut", you're left with an incredible LP. All it takes is one listen to "Pyramids", the shape-shifting opus of channel ORANGE to cement Ocean's status as one of contemporary R&B's vital songwriters. Equal parts dancefloor igniter and sultry slow jam, "Pyramids" mixes Egyptian and Biblical imagery to depict the relationship of a prostitute and a pimp. The story is a compelling one, and more importantly it's a true one. This is also the vital midpoint of the overarching narrative; the wittier tone of the record's front half gives way to an emotionally dense second half. Nothing in this song or the record as a whole ever feels phony; the many narrators we hear all carry an authenticity that bleeds the Los Angeles life.

Pushing past the hype and the many early reviews I happened to catch a glance of was difficult. That's not even counting my own expectations stemming from my love for Nostalgia, Ultra to overcome. But while it may hard to both live up to hype and craft something distinct in a young career already brimming with excellent releases, channel ORANGE finds Frank Ocean rising to the challenge with a class unlike anyone in music these days.

8

Music

Books

Film

Recent
Books

'We're Not Here to Entertain' Is Not Here to Break the Cycle of Punk's Failures

Even as it irritates me, Kevin Mattson's We're Not Here to Entertain is worth reading because it has so much direct relevance to American punks operating today.

Film

Uncensored 'Native Son' (1951) Is True to Richard Wright's Work

Compared to the two film versions of Native Son in more recent times, the 1951 version more acutely captures the race-driven existential dread at the heart of Richard Wright's masterwork.

Music

3 Pairs of Boots Celebrate Wandering on "Everywhere I Go" (premiere)

3 Pairs of Boots are releasing Long Rider in January 2021. The record demonstrates the pair's unmistakable chemistry and honing of their Americana-driven sound, as evidenced by the single, "Everywhere I Go".

Books

'World War 3 Illustrated #51: The World We Are Fighting For'

World War 3 Illustrated #51 displays an eclectic range of artists united in their call to save democracy from rising fascism.

Music

Tiphanie Doucet's "You and I" Is an Exercise in Pastoral Poignancy (premiere)

French singer-songwriter Tiphanie Doucet gives a glimpse of her upcoming EP, Painted Blue, via the sublimely sentimental ode, "You and I".

Music

PM Picks Playlist 3: WEIRDO, Psychobuildings, Lili Pistorius

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of WEIRDO, Brooklyn chillwavers Psychobuildings, the clever alt-pop of Lili Pistorius, visceral post-punk from Sapphire Blues, Team Solo's ska-pop confection, and dubby beats from Ink Project.

By the Book

The Story of Life in 10 1/2 Species (excerpt)

If an alien visitor were to collect ten souvenir life forms to represent life on earth, which would they be? This excerpt of Marianne Taylor's The Story of Life in 10 and a Half Species explores in text and photos the tiny but powerful earthling, the virus.

Marianne Taylor
Film

Exploitation Shenanigans 'Test Tube Babies' and 'Guilty Parents' Contend with the Aftermath

As with so many of these movies about daughters who go astray, Test Tube Babies blames the uptight mothers who never told them about S-E-X. Meanwhile, Guilty Parents exploits poor impulse control and chorus girls showing their underwear.

Music

Deftones Pull a Late-Career Rabbit Out of a Hat with 'Ohms'

Twenty years removed from Deftones' debut album, the iconic alt-metal outfit gel more than ever and discover their poise on Ohms.

Music

Arcade Fire's Will Butler Personalizes History on 'Generations'

Arcade Fire's Will Butler creates bouncy, infectious rhythms and covers them with socially responsible, cerebral lyrics about American life past and present on Generations.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Thelonious Monk's Recently Unearthed 'Palo Alto' Is a Stellar Posthumous Live Set

With a backstory as exhilarating as the music itself, a Thelonious Monk concert recorded at a California high school in 1968 is a rare treat for jazz fans.

Music

Jonnine's 'Blue Hills' Is an Intimate Collection of Half-Awake Pop Songs

What sets experimental pop's Jonnine apart on Blue Hills is her attention to detail, her poetic lyricism, and the indelibly personal touch her sound bears.

Music

Renegade Connection's Gary Asquith Indulges in Creative Tension

From Renegade Soundwave to Renegade Connection, electronic legend Gary Asquith talks about how he continues to produce infectiously innovative music.

Music

A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.

Books

Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.

Music

PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.

Film

'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.