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.