Having worked with big names in the music industry like Beyonce, John Legend, Jay-Z and Kanye West, one would expect Frank Ocean’s major-label debut album, Channel Orange, to be nothing short of perfection. Well, if a combination of soul-stirring vocals and narratives like that of Marvin Gaye mixed with Prince’s bold lyrics and songwriting is the definition of perfection, then the R&B singer lived up to his hype.
The New Orleans native and Odd Future member follows up his impressive 2011 mixtape, nostalgia, ULTRA, in an unprecedented way far beyond his 24 years. Channel Orange grabs the listener from the opening interlude “Start” and has no intentions of letting go sixteen songs later. The album explores love and life through complex storytelling, poignant metaphors, haunting production and chilling vocals all set against a ghostly backdrop of melodies and harmonies.
Ocean even managed to infuse popular movies such as The Matrix, Richie Rich, Ocean’s Thirteen, Forrest Gump and ATL into his songs. It’s not kitschy or purposeful as much as a testimony to Ocean’s journey and songwriting abilities. Although the album enters and exits different musical eras and genres, it doesn’t feel all over the place. Ocean seamlessly transports the listener through 1970s soul, 1980s funk and 1990s hip-hop and rock music.
While opener “Thinkin’ Bout You” has been available for at least a year, the track still feels fresh and relevant since the day Ocean released it online. It’s a classic love song in which the narrator is desperately trying to show his love through falsetto vocals and cute quips. After the James Fauntleroy interlude and cover “Fertilizer,” Ocean comes into true form with “Sierra Leone.” Ocean talks to a fake, younger version of himself about the consequences of having unprotected sex.
On “Sweet Life,” produced by N.E.R.D. frontman Pharrell Williams, Ocean’s metaphorical skills and ode to film come to life. Ocean, like The Matrix character Neo, battles the blue (dream) vs. red pill (reality) option, playing off the “ignorance is bliss” spiel. “Why see the world, when you got the beach?” Ocean coos.
When the channel changes, Ocean and fellow Odd Future member, Earl Sweatshirt, explore living in a materialistic world on “Super Rich Kids.” With Elton John-esque piano riffs, it’s the California life that Ocean has come to know. But that life is empty, failing to measure up to real love.
On the hook, Ocean raps, “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.”
Other standouts and more cognizant songs on the album are “Crack Rock,” which tackles the life of a drug fiend and the War on Drugs. The tale of good girl gone bad on “Lost” is one of the few uptempo songs on the album. Ocean also hints at his devastation and loss during Hurricane Katrina on “White.” These are the songs that show Ocean can not only write love songs, but also thought-provoking, conscious ones, too. Lead single “Pyramids” is a 9-minute journey of love, prostitution and loss matched with John Mayer’s guitar solo at the end. From tales of ancient Egypt, Cleopatra and pharaohs, this is the highlight of the album in which Ocean weaves a tale of three characters flawlessly over several beat changes.
The true shining moments on the album come near the end, unfortunately. “Pink Matter” featuring Andre 3000 of OutKast, “Bad Religion” and the closer “Forrest Gump” are the three defining and transcendent songs on the album. The latter two, “Bad Religion” and “Forrest Gump,” were undoubtedly the songs that caused the rumor mill to run amuck about Ocean’s sexuality. Both songs contain the words “him” and “he” rather than “her” and “she.” But if one gets caught up on pronouns and Ocean’s sexual preferences, then it might be easy to miss out on the sheer brilliance and vulnerability in both songs.
In the heart-wrenching ballad “Bad Religion,” Ocean, paired with melancholic organ sounds, opens up and sings to a fictional Islamic taxi driver about loving a said “he” and not having that love reciprocated. Vocally, he is unmatched on this song, easing in and out of spoken word and high notes to soulful clamors impeccably.
He sings, “This unrequited love. To me it’s nothing but a one-man cult. And cyanide in my Styrofoam cup. I could never make him love me. Never make him love me.”
As fearless, artistic and beautiful as Ocean’s coming-out letter evoking unrequited and unreciprocated love, Channel Orange creates a truth so sublime, but with enough freedom to let the listener discern its messages. It would be an utter disappointment for such a solid body of work to only be remembered for a chance encounter back when Ocean was 19. If Channel Orange’s wild ride of emotions and originality is any indication of what’s to come, let’s just say it’s a musical roller coaster I never want to get off.
Album Grade: A
Best Tracks: “Pyramids,” “Pink Matter,” “Super Rich Kids” and “Bad Religion”
What are your favorite tracks on Channel Orange?Tags: 2012, album, bad religion, Channel Orange, coming out, Frank Ocean, July 10, letter, music, Nostalgia Ultra, Odd Future, pink matter, Pyramids, review, songs, super rich kids