Review of Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange
Most of the press that Frank Ocean has received recently has dealt with the revelation that he is bisexual. While I certainly commend him for his honesty, after listening to his debut album Channel Orange, I get the feeling that most of the publicity Ocean will receive in the future will be for his amazing music rather than his personal life.
This is one of the most engrossing, original, emotionally resonant albums of 2012, and a frontrunner for album of the year. While Ocean works primarily in the domain of R&B, his music is far too diverse to be strictly placed in that category. Like Stevie Wonder before him, Ocean uses R&B as his base, while surrounding it with a wide array of styles and influences. From the light funk of “Sweet Life,” to the bombastic prog-rock of “Pyramids,” Ocean is willing to take his music in any direction.
What really sets this album apart, however, is the lyrics. Ocean writes with more honesty than any performer today. When he describes unrequited love as a “one-man cult” on “Bad Religion,” it’s impossible not to feel his pain. Same goes for “Thinkin’ Bout You,” in which Ocean reflects on memories of a lost love, and wonders where things went wrong. You can sense the denial in Ocean’s voice when he sings “I don’t love you/I just thought you were cute.” He doesn’t even pretend to mean those words.
Romance is not the only topic discussed at length here, as Ocean gets more than a few words in about class warfare. The bouncy “Sweet Life” frames class privilege in a wholly positive light. “You’ve had a landscaper and a housekeeper since you were born/The starshine always kept you warm,” Ocean sings to an unnamed antagonist. Despite the song’s upbeat melody, a bit of envy is definitely peeking through.
Only two tracks later, Ocean turns that lifestyle on its head with “Super Rich Kids.” This track reflects on the same life of privilege as “Sweet Life,” but presents it in a much darker context, making it seem like the path to destruction and emptiness. The way he frames the same existence as both paradise and hell shows the depth of Ocean’s lyrics, as well as his mindset. Individually, each song presents a fairly narrow-minded view of upper-class life. Together, they paint a cloudier picture, and remind us that things aren’t always as black and white as they seem.
This sort of contradiction continues throughout the album. This is not a record that could be described as definitely happy, or definitively gloomy. It’s a bit of both, and that range of emotions makes the highs feel higher, and the lows feel lower.
There really isn’t a single flaw with this album, as the proceedings are thoughtful and original throughout. Ocean began gaining steam in 2011 with the release of the Nostalgia, ULTRA mixtape. This album should launch him into the stratosphere, and establish him as one of the most talented musicians working today.