Album Review: Frank Ocean – Channel Orange
OverviewGenre: Hip-Hop, Pop
Pros:Ocean's voice is strong, infectious
Cons:Dragged down by bouts of lethargy
Channel Orange could have been a contender, but its lack of consistency and the inclusion of some seriously self-indulgent numbers make it an album of extremes.
If you hadn’t guessed from the audible homage to the childhoods of gamers everywhere, nostalgia plays a key role in Ocean’s music. It informs the many sound bites and samples littered throughout Channel Orange, indications of Ocean’s taste and the ambiance of his daily life, and he’s also not afraid to put his influences on show. There’s more than a hint of Marvin Gaye about Ocean; ‘Sierra Leone’ could easily be a What’s Going On outtake, a simple love story partly spoken and partly sung, backed by floating strings and harmonies.
The weaker songs on Channel Orange are unfortunately indicative of the comfort Ocean has with R&B convention. Early single ‘Thinking Bout You’ is the first and most obvious example. Despite boasting one of Channel Orange‘s strongest vocal performances and a truly gorgeous hook, its is weighed down by Ocean’s well-worn message of heartbreak and the chasm of expectation between a man and his former flame. These moments of generic concession really stamp out the momentum built by Channel Orange‘s strongest efforts, like ‘Pyramids’.
Ten minutes long and still the album’s most focused track, ‘Pyramids’ it is also most definitely Channel Orange‘s centrepiece – Ocean’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, his ‘Paranoid Android’. ‘Bring back my Cleopatra,’ Ocean cries, with choppy beats and looped, angelic choirs shadowing his wounded croon. He’s actually transfixed by a prostitute with the poise and regality of the great Egyptian queen, but then he starts coming down. The song transitions and becomes increasingly soured by melancholy as the high fades; wavering echoes of lone trumpet help to bring realities to light. Only skittish keyboards betray the dejection of the song’s closing half, and even they are intermittent; the tune is still catchy as fuck, thanks to Ocean’s vocal refrains, but it’s thrillingly gripped by cynicism and poignancy.
‘Sweet Life’ and ‘Forrest Gump’ show off a deft and light-hearted side to the Odd Future vocalist. ‘Forrest Gump’ has a sweetness reminiscent of ‘Made in America’, one of Ocean’s two contributions to Watch the Throne, while ‘Sweet Life’ is as close to a musical distillation of sunshine as an artist will likely ever get. It’s a celebration of the sheltered life of the rich, but it’s nigh-on impossible not to become wrapped up in its warm, brassy embrace.
The two songs that follow are not as charming. ‘Super Rich Kids’ and ‘Not Just Money’ present the other side of the lives of moneyed youths. The recently freed Earl Sweatshirt is in monotonous and uninspired form on ‘Super Rich Kids’, much like his backing track, and in combination with unsympathetic message of bored wealth, the song has no chance of escaping the mire.
Ocean displays a surprising dedication in chronicling both ends of the social spectrum, though. ‘Crack Rock’ crystalises the shame of addiction. Its lyrical heft works in tandem, strangely, with a certain musical paralysis that grips parts of Orange; a ’70s funk-style beat chugs along in the background as he wills himself to the next hit and explores the depths of his dependence on the pipe. The teasing emphasis he puts on ‘Crooked cop, dead cop / How much dope can you push to me?’ is a thing of wonder.
‘Lost’, on the other hand, is a pointless ode to hedonism, and there’s also room for some self-indulgent numbers, such as the John Mayer-featuring ‘White’, a confirmation of Ocean’s worst MOR tenancies. Outkast’s André 3000 guests on the Prince-esque ‘Pink Matter’ continuing a stunning run of guest verses that have valiantly subsidised his fans in lieu of new material.
Channel Orange’s high points are like nothing you will hear this year and certainly mark Ocean out as a major talent (even André 3000 raps that he is “so motherfucking good” at one point), but consistency is lacking. Had Ocean been in a more adventurous state of mind and ignored some nostalgic impulses, Channel Orange could have been the album of 2012. On ‘Sweet Life’, he wonders, ‘Why see the world, when you got the beach?’ It is a perplexing image of paradise as inertia, and one could get the same sensation from Ocean’s major label debut. However, when Ocean does choose to roam the Earth, it’s enthralling.