Frank Ocean’s 2011 debut album, Nostalgia, Ultra, was an admirable collection of R&B songs both weird and enlightened that managed to swim defiantly against the mainstream current while remaining unexpectedly accessible to a broad swath of listeners (soul and pop-rock have rarely collided with such happy coalition as on Frank’s rendition of Coldplay’s “Strawberry Swing”).
Most of this was due to the artist whose advanced level of emotional intelligence belied a young age (24) and whose approach to the craft defied fellow peers in a genre that typically favors animalistic instinct over the cautious indulgence revealed on Nostalgia. The reserved swagger of “Novacane” and heavy-lidded sentiments of “Swim Good” (the two most notable songs on the album) were the best reflection of Frank’s emotional pathos: an anchored sentimentality that reminded us through melancholy and attenuation that love, in addition to its buoyant and fleeting properties, can also be a cumbersome, degrading and, not least of all, dangerous thing.
Ocean runs a Tumblr site of carefully curated images, fan inquiries and self-reflective non-sequiturs, perhaps the most telling of which is now this post–a black and white photo of a young boy seated in front of a fully-grown lion. The two bodies are separated only by a pane of glass and Frank’s caption at the bottom reads: “how i look at the game. or maybe how the game looks at me.” Ocean maneuvered his way through Nostalgia, Ultra and its resultant success, as the boy spying, and being spied by the lion. And, since a minimum of five years ago, he’s lived as a man with something much heavier on his shoulders, a slice of personal information that smells like meat to animals in “the game,” or those that would delight in the dissection and tasting of every tendon and fat molecule. Bravely, Ocean has allowed himself to become grist for the proverbial mill, allowing the fate of his star, still on the cusp of apogee, to lie at least partially in the hands of the court of public opinion.
Hindsight being what it is, it’s easier now to feel the pull of Ocean’s particular gravity on Nostalgia, Ultra, but the beauty of that record is that an attuned listener would have detected it upon first listen — the album was just that intelligent and expertly nuanced. Separating the quality and provocativeness of Frank Ocean’s music now from the recent headlines is a virtual impossibility, but any writer worth his or her critical salt should try it for the sake of allowing Ocean’s newest record, Channel Orange, to stand on its own impressive merits.
An admission: I am likely not that writer.
The precipitates that Channel Orange has left drifting in my conscious after a half dozen or so listens remain a distillation of both the singer’s rare talents and recent reveal. For that we can give singular praise to the musical gods while defiantly flipping the middle finger to a society that forces us to repeatedly consider why his burden exists as a talking point in the first place.
Regardless, from any angle Channel Orange is a triumph. It’s a pulsating agent of pop-R&B that strategically circumnavigates its fellow ambassadors and then, with resounding skill and quiet devastation, renders them emotionally incapacitated. Standard convention is abandoned for the sake of intuition; parallels between contemporary and legendary envoys of pop and soul music are allowed to exist concurrently and then, without warning, collide into something wholly new; and vulnerability and self-preservation are wielded as sword and shield, respectively, by a single observant protagonist who is as comfortable in providing answers to the questions of love as he is in asking them.
The songs on Channel Orange are spliced together with audio clips of television programs and movies in the same way a cassette tape whirs and clicks, rewinding and fast-forwarding, connected cuts on Nostaliga, Ultra. In some places you can even hear faint samples of dialogue layered into the backgrounds of songs. Jimmy Walker’s “Dy-no-mite!”, for example, acts as a sort of spiritual guide to Ocean and fellow Odd Future cohort Earl Sweatshirt on “Super Rich Kids,” as the two try on coats of burgeoning celebrity and wealth that still don’t fit quite right. The methodical piano thump channels the fabulousness of Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets” but Ocean’s “I’m searchin’ for a real love” refrain echoes Mary J. Blige’s pursuit of something everlasting among an abundance of disposable goods. Earl is perfectly languorous on his verse, waking from a Xanax-induced slumber just long enough to string together half-dreamt insight into a world of privilege and spiritual stagnation.
Big concepts like this are laid-out by Ocean via deft songwriting that pierces with truth in some moments and labors in meandering channels in others. “Crack Rock” shuffles along as a junky’s biography and broken summary of the so-called war on drugs, while “Pink Matter” (featuring an intensely philosophical Andre 3000) considers the inextricable link between our mental and sensory pleasure centers, all while aliens view quizzically from a purple sky. When Ocean gets similarly meditative, as on the zoned-out, bassed-out bliss of “Pilot Jones” and the home life daydream “Sierra Leone,” things get so wonderfully strange and exploratory that song structure ceases to matter as all such encumbrances give way to feeling and mood.
Indeed the only track here that sonically resembles current commercial or club fodder is the epic “Pyramids”, nine minutes and fifty-three seconds of inebriating allegory that intertwines Egyptian dynasticism and Las Vegas strippers. The first half is composed of heady, pulsating dance synth that eventually descends into a Blade Runner-style score before finally concluding as a crawling, swagged-out riding anthem and Prince-like guitar crescendo. The only obvious thing about this track is that it was never meant to be played on the radio or in the clubs; it’s way too smart for that. It’s as if Frank Ocean wanted to prove that our ever-shortened attention spans and lowered expectations are not the victims of currently en vogue electro sonics, but rather the insidious machinery that churns out vapid, color-by-numbers songwriting. Alas, we should have known this all along.
Engaging experimentalism aside, Channel Orange succeeds best when dealing in romantic affection. The record opens and closes with love letters: the stripped-down 808 thump of “Thinkin Bout You” features intense moments of intimacy when Ocean flutters into a defenseless falsetto; the playful and blues-y “Forrest Gump” closes things out on a positive tip, allowing nostalgia and remembrance to wash over the storyteller and listener. That the song could be sung from the perspective of either Jenny (of the eponymous movie) or Frank Ocean himself, doesn’t really matter. We should learn to think of both when listening.
Last Monday, Ocean appeared on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon giving a naked, disarming performance of “Bad Religion,” the intricate lovelorn ballad responsible for setting all of the recent extracurricular discussions into motion. It’s a beautiful and visceral piece of songwriting that likens the fallout from unrequited love to cult-like dogma (“If it brings me to my knees / It’s a bad religion”) and, like all great torch ballads, manages to be affecting to the outside observer and painfully self-indulgent to the songwriter (“To me it’s nothing but a one man cult”). Ocean’s lyrics and performance (both live and recorded) are uncommonly emotive, but the guiding principle for the song is old hat: being heartbroken still sucks. We know this because Frank Ocean’s forebears (Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke, D’Angelo, et al) have already told us.
It’s that one measly gender-specific pronoun shared between the writer and the song’s object of desire that has acted as the bridge between R&B music and the alleged “alternative lifestyle” movement, two galaxies that have so rarely collided in history. Frank Ocean’s anomalous musicianship is bringing ears into line with a richer, more rewarding listening experience than what we’ve come to expect from popular R&B, and that’s a wonderful thing. If Channel Orange also happens to play a role in bending our universal belief system into a more just alignment, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, either.