| POSTED BY: ANDREW GRUTTADARO
Frank Ocean first came to us as a member of Odd Future, crooning hooks on tracks like Tyler, the Creator's "She." To be honest, it was easy to think of him as just another voice -- one of those hook-crafting singers that are a dime a dozen. That passerby's perception greatly dissipated when the world heard Nostalgia, Ultra, which showcased an artist who was unbelievably talented, lyrically and musically. Nostalgia, Ultra was the beginning of Ocean developing his own genre -- something that draws on greats like Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, but whose experimentation and boundary-pushing is even more accelerated than contemporary neo-R&Bers like Maxwell and Usher. His subject natures and unique productions blew us away (and maybe even opened our eyes and allowed us to drool over Abel Tesfaye's The Weeknd). And even though the media's reviews of his EP were totally glowing, channel ORANGE suggests that we may have underestimated him again.
I don't even know where to start. The songs that comprise channel ORANGE are varied, unique, and intensely constructed. Here Ocean combines the indie-crazed chillwave genre with hip-hop's aptness for rhythm and percussion to make something literally mind-numbing (I mean this is in a very good way). Songs like "Thinking Bout You" and "Sierra Leone" embody how it feels to have that gas mask strapped on to you at the dentist's office. Just inhale, recline, and enjoy. But then there are songs like "Crack Rock" and "Super Rich Kids" -- a song that is part Elton John, part Robyn S, and part Odd Future -- that are shockingly urgent and in your face. On "Pyramids," Ocean melds R&B with house music electronics, and then halfway through morphs the song into something different completely. All of this is background to Ocean's spectacular singing voice, one that can croon, hit the high notes, scream and then tremble softly.
channel ORANGE is an artist's assertion that he's the best at what he does, and that to argue otherwise would be stupid. And what's even scarier, is that channel ORANGE's sonic elements might not even be its most impressive element.
No, that award has to go to Ocean's displayed abilities as a lyricist. Many times throughout the album, Ocean switches perspectives and narrators (like when he turns himself into Jenny from Forrest Gump) and shows both sides of a subject with unbiased honesty. On "Sweet Life," Ocean sings about a girl who has "had a landscaper and a housekeeper" since she was born. She very literally lives "the sweet life," and Ocean seemingly wants to live it too. The next track is a music-less voiceover of a poverty-stricken mother speaking to her son, telling him that money is more than just money, that it's "the difference between being happy and sad" -- agreeing with the ethos of "The Sweet Life" but for far different reasons. And then that whole argument comes crashing down with the next track, "Super Rich Kids." On it, Ocean sings about how a "sweet life" isn't real, that money doesn't buy happiness -- it only buys "fake friends." The narrator of "Super Rich Kids," whose parents are non-existent and whose wealth has rendered him boundary-less, is in a constant state of depression and dread. All because of the money the narrator of "Not Just Money" so badly desires.
Ocean employs similar writing tricks with other topics on the album as well, such as drugs and love. But he is also incredibly adept at writing multi-layered tracks. "Pyramids," a mind-bendingly dense song, finds a link between the Egyptian pyramids and the pyramid of the Luxor hotel in Las Vegas -- ostensibly creating a song about Cleopatra's downfall as well as 21st century pimp-prostitute relations. Ocean has a taxi-cab therapy session on "Bad Religion" where he is at once talking about unrequited satisfaction from religion and how unrequited love can actually become like a religion. "Pink Matter" is the album's heaviest song, existentially exploring the meaning of love, sex, and emotions.
It's difficult to think of an artist who is at once so enticing and so philosophic. It's a tribute to Frank Ocean and his work that we'll need to listen to channel ORANGE many, many times before we fully understand it -- and that we'll actually enjoy doing it. It's a work of an auteur -- Earl Sweatshirt and Andre 3000 are the only other prominent voices -- completely focused, completely in his element. Here's how good channel ORANGE is -- I didn't mention the media blitz surrounding Ocean's recent, culturally momentous "coming out" once in this review. You know why? Because with something this impressive, it's irrelevant.
channel ORANGE is streaming on Frank Ocean's website.