Presumably we’ve all read enough articles about Frank Ocean’s sexuality by now to not dwell on it too much in a discussion of Channel Orange; a record which is only minimally influenced by that context. But this young artist’s touching story of his first love and its struggles is relevant for a different reason. It’s relevant because those two concise paragraphs that have been dissected, analysed and misinterpreted at nearly every opportunity, posses the very same qualities which can be traced through Frank Ocean’s best music, of which Channel Orange contains its fair share.
As perfectly encapsulated by that message, initially destined for the album’s liner notes, Frank Ocean is a gifted storyteller. He sings often sad, simplistic tales of love, which might take form in songs about relationships, or on a more basic level, simply humanity itself. Take ‘Crack Rock’, for example, which at first appears to be a typical enough story of teenage addiction, but within its detail is a powerful sense of compassion for the hopelessness of these kids’ cause in life, as well as a frustration at the corruption which allows for that. Similarly, ‘Pilot Jones’ is another non-judgemental view of drug abuse, finding a protagonist mourning the decay of a relationship while finding comfort in the ecstasy of getting high and having sex with that same person. Some of life’s big questions will often be found at the bottom of Frank Ocean songs, embedded in characters and situations and hitting all the harder for their implicitness, gently revealing new layers of poignancy.
There’s a thread running through the Inevitable Frank Ocean backlash of dismissing this album as hipster zeitgeist, soon to be dismissed once R&B is forgotten again under a pile of chaps with guitars ‘saving’ rock and roll again. But what makes Ocean special is that his talent isn’t really defined by genre, and it’s the timelessness of these songs which will hold value no matter how they’re packaged. Sure, it helps that the straining falsetto of ‘Thinkin Bout You’ is reflective of that song’s sheer desperation, but the same could be said of how Nick Cave delivers his most heartfelt ballads, yet nobody is questioning his medium. I’m not necessarily trying to compare Frank Ocean and Nick Cave, but there’s a disparity between those two worlds that needs to be looked at, and we need to ask why one can be so flippantly dismissed as disposable.
Channel Orange is framed by the towering set pieces of ‘Thinkin Bout You’, ‘Pyramids’ and ‘Bad Religion’, but as a full record it sets its own pace and works its charm slowly. From the slick Neptunes produced idealism of ‘Sweet Life’ to line-dancing anthem of the future ‘Forest Gump’, there is a seamless blend between traditional and modern elements, as well as between subtlety and grandiosity. Like last year’s Nostalgia, Ultra, the songs are neatly linked together with tape deck recordings and lo-fi snippets of life, allowing these stories to breathe and also distancing Ocean from necessarily being the record’s focal point. Even the unexpected soft-rock soloing of John Mayer serves a purpose, creating a tranquil interlude between the album’s poppiest moment (‘Lost’) and the spiky snare hits of ‘Monks’.
Further cameos from Andre 3000 and Odd Future’s Earl Sweatshirt feel welcome, if not entirely necessary. Even so, both can be found on typically tongue-twisting form, riffing off of Ocean’s narratives without attempting to dominate or ‘steal the show’. Although strangely, the same could be said of Frank, who we may well be able to position within the context of these songs, but only occasionally does he assume the lead role. Of course, a great story is more than just the sum of its characters, but with Ocean sitting in the director’s chair, Channel Orange is undoubtedly one of the most accomplished records of the year.
Words: Kyle Ellison
Channel Orange is out today on Def Jam. To stream the album in full, click here.