Counterbalance No. 125a: Frank Ocean's 'channel ORANGE'
Too many bottles of this wine we can't pronounce. Too many bowls of that green no lucky charms. Super rich kids -- and the guys from Counterbalance -- listening to the (new) 125th most acclaimed album of all time. Frank Ocean’s surprisingly recent album is next.
Klinger: OK, for the folks out there who are paying attention: Our mathematical overlord at the Acclaimed Music website has made updates to the Great List. Some records have taken a trip up the list, while others have taken a tumble. It's pretty exciting for music list lovers everywhere (seriously, check it out—Revolver overtook Pet Sounds at the No. 1 spot!), but it means that we have to do a little administrative futzing about, since some there are albums that we didn't get to, starting with this one. In fact, Frank Ocean's channel ORANGE hadn't even been released when we started this Counterbalance project back in 2010. These are crazy, crazy times, Mendelsohn.
But now here we are, looking at a brand new album, from our perspective. In fact, we've been so fully ensconced in this fools' crusade that I've never even had time to fully investigate this disc. I had certainly heard all of the journalistic hubbub about it, with everybody saying that Ocean was a bold new voice in R&B, but I was probably too busy listening to Kraftwerk to check it out. Now that I have, I think I can say with relative certainty that channel ORANGE is a very big statement indeed—just the kind of thing that classic albums are made of. Whether it's capable of going the distance in the public consciousness remains to be seen. That's my gut reaction, anyway. Mendelsohn?
Mendelsohn: I didn't get to this album until a couple of months after its release. When it dropped I was too busy listening to the Pixies' Surfer Rosa (I checked). But when I got to it a couple of months later, it dominated my stereo (luckily I was supposed to be listening to another Led Zeppelin record). This is one of those albums that fueled my new music addiction. I spent years looking for a record like this, searching for the next entry into the canon, and when it came, I had my head stuck so far up the canon's ass, I hardly noticed. Thankfully, as you noted, the Great List has been updated and this record pulled in just outside the Top 100. I couldn't be happier to spend another week with channel ORANGE.
I think the success of this album as far as the Great List is concerned will be determined by Ocean's future output. Will he prove himself worthy of a place in the canon? Or will channel ORANGE be one of those great albums that gets passed around back room circles as a well-kept secret but forgotten in the grander scheme? I hope Ocean continues to push the envelope. He has an amazing voice and is a versatile talent when it comes to composition. And as an overall package, channel ORANGE is a sprawling, dramatic, and intense record that is at times smooth and at others incredibly pointed. There are few records that can tread the fine line between entertainment and a dissecting rumination of the modern human condition.
Klinger: One thing that comes to mind for me as I listen to this album is the way that it generally fits in with the larger tradition. I hear echoes of Prince's Sign o' the Times (the fact that you used the word "sprawling" certainly triggered that in my mind—critics are always calling double albums that). But I can't get away from the feeling that channel ORANGE is an heir to Sly and the Family Stone's There's a Riot Goin' On.
channel ORANGE continues with Sly's legacy of languid grooves, druggy gloom, and the general sense that even amid the best parties, there's still a lot of sadness shot through these young people's experiences. Ocean has a keen eye for detail that comes through in his lyrics—the little details in a song like "Crack Rock" ("Your family stopped inviting you to things / Won't let you hold their infant"), the sybaritic "Super Rich Kids". It's heartbreaking. It's maybe too heartbreaking for me.
Mendelsohn: I would liken this record to the Arcade Fire's Funeral. channel ORANGE is an amalgamation of all things R&B as well as a little extra to boot. There is the social consciousness and critique à la Marvin Gaye in "Crack Rock", the heart-wrenching, emotion-filled "Thinking About You," in the vein of Otis Redding's finest ballads. Neo Soul artists like R. Kelly (who surprisingly, or not, didn't make the Great List) also had a hand in shaping this record.
Maybe the strongest touchstones on this record are Prince and Stevie Wonder. You can hear strains of both those artists thought this entire album.
I think, though, that it would be unfair to simply label Ocean as heir to the R&B crown and leave it at that. Much like the Beatles or the Arcade Fire, Ocean is a master at synthesizing decades worth of material, pressing it through his filter, and outputting an album that is wholly unique but almost immediately recognizable. The elements of rock, hip-hop, R&B, soul, jazz, funk, and electronic blur together so seamlessly that it's hard to tell, at any given moment, who Ocean is referencing—if he is referencing any one at all.
I also don't hear the sadness in this record. There is a stark realism to much of it, especially "Crack Rock" and "Lost", in regard to drugs and "Thinking About You," and "Bad Religion," in regard to love, but that doesn't equate to sadness in my mind. channel ORANGE is an emotional, confessional record, and I think, at the end of the day, that is what really sets this album apart.
Klinger: Holy cow, Mendelsohn—Prince, the Beatles, and Stevie Wonder! Would you also like to compare Frank Ocean to Leonardo Da Vinci and Babe Ruth while you're at it? I kid, and I can see why you and just about every critic in the country was so excited about this guy. (Also, a lot of the sadness in my ears comes from having kids in their early 20s, but that's not necessarily something we need to go into here.) And I do have to admit that I'm impressed too, and I'm curious to hear how he handles all this praise that's being heaped upon him. Given the openness with which he addressed his sexuality right before the release of channel ORANGE, I get the impression that he's emotionally up to the challenge, but time will tell.
Speaking of which, Ocean received a huge amount of press for that blog post, which likely contributed to the attention that the album received. Even in 2012, though, that strikes me as a gamble on his part. We've recently covered two artists, Elton John and Freddie Mercury, whose careers suffered downturns as talk of their sexuality overshadowed their music. It's heartening that Ocean encountered a great deal less prejudice than those two did, and it suggests that he is an artist whose integrity and willingness to take risks go hand in hand.
Mendelsohn: To be honest, the cynic in me originally saw that blog post as a savvy PR move. In hindsight, it was not only great press but a smart, preemptive measure—one that took an immense amount of courage—and probably was the best thing that could have been done to smooth the way for this incredible record. In making that announcement in regard to his sexuality, Ocean allowed the spotlight to hit his personal life first before letting the album overtake the attention and not the other way around. I was also really happy about the overall positive reception to Ocean's announcement by the music industry—especially the hip hop community. This isn't something that would have gone over well even 10 years ago and it is indeed heartening to see attitudes changing for the better.
It would have been a shame if a record this good from an artist as talented as Ocean didn't get made or didn't get the accolades it deserved simply because of the man's sexual orientation. And while it certainly does play a role in this sexy record, I always find myself being pulled in by Ocean's exquisite take on melody and uncanny ability with hooks. It's a rare thing to find an album that can so thoroughly lodge itself in my head, from song to song, like channel ORANGE seems to do.
Klinger: It's pretty clear you're not alone there—this seems to be an album that crosses most demographic barriers, especially where critics are concerned. This is also one of the rare instances where I'm relatively confident that, regardless of what happens with Frank Ocean's career, we will still be talking about channel ORANGE.