Album Review: Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange is what R&B should be

Channel_orange

image credit: Def Jam

With a mix of old school and eccentric instrumentals, Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange is the epitome of R&B in the 21st century. The whole album listens like a concept album with several songs connected through a weaving noir-inspired narrative of money, unrequited love, and addiction. Influences from Prince, Stevie Wonder, and Marvin Gaye are visible in the album, but Ocean’s talent as an original singer-songwriter shines through. With collaborations from John Mayer, guest producer Pharell Williams, Andre 3000, and fellow Odd Future member Earl Sweatshirt, this is the boldest R&B album produced in a long time. Not bad for a man who used to write lyrics for Justin Bieber.

Channel Orange is Ocean’s debut studio album, but he’s no newbie to the music scene. Born Christopher Breaux in New Orleans, Louisiana, Ocean began recording while at the University of New Orleans in 2005. Hurricane Katrina forced Ocean to pursue his musical aspirations in Los Angeles where he networked with music industry circles and signed a songwriting deal. Ocean wrote songs for Brandy, Usher, and Justin Bieber while still recording and producing his own demos. His networking circle soon included controversial L.A. hip-hop collective Odd Future, which he joined, and became close friends with leader Tyler, the Creator.

The release of his mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra received positive reviews from critics, and exposed the New Orleans crooner to a music-savvy audience. However, his contributions to Jay-Z’s and Kanye West’s Watch the Throne gave him a larger audience.

Ocean’s music isn’t the only thing that has kept him in the news. The prevalence of masculine pronouns like “he” and “him” in his song lyrics has raised questions from critics about Ocean’s sexuality. Almost a week before the album’s digital release, Ocean published an open letter written in 2011 on his Tumblr about his failed relationship with another man. Fans and other artists praised and supported Ocean.

The acceptance was overwhelming, especially from a music genre seen as heteronormative, but the album’s publicity and commercial success were more overwhelming. Channel Orange debuted at number two on the Billboard 200 chart, beating former songwriting clients Justin Bieber and Usher. Ocean kicked off his 14-show Channel Orange Tour last week that will run through August, ending with a performance at this summer’s Lollapalooza in Chicago.

Below is a track-by-track review of the album and stream:

“Start”

The sounds of laughter and soft chatter transitions to the startup beeps and hums of a Playstation, which prepares the listeners to escape into Frank Ocean’s world.

“Thinkin Bout You”

The lead single is impressive not only for its unearthly instrumentals, but also for Ocean’s vocal prowess. His familiar deep and mellow voice in the verses is complemented by his falsetto chorus. The smooth production value provides a silky feeling that not even soy milk can provide. This song raised questions about Ocean’s sexuality, but whatever sexual orientation the listener is, anyone could relate to the track’s tale of unrequited love.

“Fertilizer”

One of three other interludes in the album, the lighthearted jingle sounds out of place from the rest of the album, but the innocent-sounding song works as a bridge between the tracks.

“Sierra Leone”

Ocean sings back up to his own statements in this track, while a steady percussion creates a spoken-word atmosphere. The track’s lyrics present a circle of innocence broken by sex and pregnancy, only to be regained by childbirth in an exotic, yet familial setting.

“Sweet Life”

The second single, with help from super producer Pharell Williams, has a Stevie Wonder feeling because of its jazzy funk instrumentals, electric piano, and backing vocals. The lyrics describe the sheltered life in Ladera Heights, one of Los Angeles’ wealthiest neighborhoods. It is a jab at the blissful ignorance that only the rich and sheltered can understand. The next two tracks also deal with money and happiness.

“Not Just for Money”

The second interlude in the album contains audio from a woman talking about the importance of money as it relates to living and happiness, which is brought up in the next track.

“Super Rich Kids”

Frank Ocean includes fellow Odd Future member Earl Sweatshirt in this tale of decadence ending in tragedy. The lyrics about the dark side of wealth are held together by a mix of Ocean’s vocals, Earl Sweatshirt’s rap flow, and a slow heavy beat. The head-bobbing track ends with the sounds of channel flipping, which provides a good transition to the next track and theme.

“Pilot Jones”

This spacey track is about Ocean’s romance with Courtney Love (just kidding). The bleak electric sound of blips and whistles accompanied by the echoed vocals aid this tale of a drug-addicted lover by conveying a feeling of intoxication.

“Crack Rock”

The title gives away what the song is about. The cymbals and drums in the track reenergize the otherwise mellow and melancholy album. The central theme is the damage caused by crack, which contains just about every anti-drug cliché. The only thing missing from this lyrically simplistic track is Nancy Reagan. Musically, the track is energizing, but lyrically it’s nothing special.

“Pyramids”

The third single for the album is a two-part story. The first is the story of the ancient Egyptian queen Cleopatra, followed by the story of a boyfriend (Ocean) watching his stripper girlfriend leave for work. It is also one of the darkest songs on the album with themes of betrayal, and lust. The transition from traditional R&B sounds to a more electric sound helps split the song into two. The shady motel setting also gives the second half of the song a gritty noir feeling that makes you feel dirty in all the right ways. The guitar waling outro gives the song a perfect conclusion. Lyrically, musically, and stylistically this is one of the better songs on the album.

“Lost”

If this album is any representation of Ocean’s personal love life, then Ocean needs to find better relationships. This track about a drug-making girlfriend is a lot livelier than other songs about love, with catchy and ornate beats. Maybe Ocean should get an EHarmony account.

“White”

John Mayer contributes to the album with mellow guitar riffs that works as a cool-off point. A lyrical version of this song appears in the Odd Future Tape Vol. 2.

“Monks”

If spiritual concerts were more like the ones described in this song, you’d probably go to. Descriptions of moshing monks and casual sex are only aided by the funky jazz beats, and make it the liveliest song on this album.

“Bad Religion”

This is one of the most personal songs on the album and listens like a self-confessional more than just a song of unrequited love. The mix of spirituality and raw emotion makes this track evocatively beautiful. The organ playing enhances the sense of spiritual soul searching. The album could end at this song, and the listener could be left satisfied.

“Pink Matter”

The song is a search of spiritual enlightenment and physical pleasure, which gives two meanings to the term “pink matter.” Much like the two previous track, this song describes Ocean’s search for spiritual enlightenment in the physical world. Andre 3000 jumps into the song with his own flow that works better with the beat than Ocean’s lyrics. The slow burning song crashes and burns with soft piano keys changing to distorted guitar playing ending the song abruptly.

“Forrest Gump”

This song could also be seen as an allusion to Ocean’s sexuality, or just a fascination with Tom Hanks’ character from the movie of the same name. The subtle electric guitar riffs and steady drum machine beat are just killer. The other than its theme of unrequited lyrics, the playful lyrics makes this track seem out place with the rest of the album.

“End”

The fading in and out, and distortion gives the song a feeling of losing the signal, and gives the listener a farewell. The final sounds of leaving the car and entering the house show that the journey is finally over.

 

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