Album Review: Frank Ocean – Channel ORANGE

July 12, 2012

Two of the albums I have been anticipating the most this year are out this month; one is “Handwritten” by the Gaslight Anthem which is due soon, the other is Frank Ocean’s studio debut Channel ORANGE. So I was pleasantly surprised to find it out a week earlier than advertised. Since last year’s excellent free mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra I have been ready to hear what this artist is capable of delivering by way of an official release. Nostalgia, Ultra was a fully realized work in itself featuring some of last year’s best songs in any genre and it was given away completely free and legal across the web. Ocean has mentioned in interviews over the past year that he wanted to make his first studio album big and layered, old-school in its scope and ambition. I was tempted to delay a full review of it so soon, because at first listen it did seem like it needed time to sink in before an adequate judgement could be made. But now, 4 spins in and it’s lodging deep into my brain; the hooks have all had time to spread out and get stuck there (in good ways), the melodies have fully shown their strength, and I think a decent evaluation is now possible.

Channel ORANGE may be the most creative and ambitious pure R&B record made in a long, long time. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best one nor that it is without it’s share of flaws, but in an age in which R.Kelly has carved out a dozen plus album career on ick-worthy yet laughable cartoon-porn r&B and every Ne-Yo and Chris Brown to come along sound like tired Usher knock-offs, it’s a boon to hear an artist in this genre take aim at the high-bar set by creative visionaries of yesteryear from Innvervisions-era Stevie Wonder to 1999-era Prince. Though few of the songs here have the immediacy of Nostalgia‘s best moments, almost every song develops into a great one given enough time. Ocean is a relatively under-stated songwriter, and there are clunker lines occasionally (“too many bowls of that green no lucky charms” comes to mind), but there’s also a wide-ranging lyrical focus here  that is practically unparalleled from his competitors. Sure it’s hard (at least for me) to empathize with the spoiled and drugged out rich kids in “Sweet Life” and “Not Just Money,” but the global adventure and romantica of “Monks” and the travel-fatigued “Lost” open up to much more imaginative lyrics. Yet even the rich kid blues of “Sweet Life” sound excellent once you get over that empathy hump  because the songs are  just soaked in quality jazz notes. There is a sonically diverse landscape delivered with this album that’ s hard to beat, from the opening “Thinkin Bout You” pop r&b single to the Princeish “Pilot Jones,” to the jazz-funk opus of “Pyramids” that holds the album together at the center, stretching on for almost 10 minutes and incorporating a lush soundscape of creative imagination. “Lost” is the catchiest most dance-worthy track here with an irresistible beat, and Andre 3000 teases us with another prelude to his eventual return with a great guest spot on “Pink Matter.” And of course, now the song making the most news is the melancholy balladry of “Bad Religion,” which  hits even stronger with its  tale of Frank’s unrequited love for  “him” now that Frank Ocean has made news for announcing in an emotional on-line letter that his first love occurred at 19 and was an intense relationship with another man.  Channel ORANGE is held together like albums of old by being thematically grounded, in this case by a series of jingles, sketches, and musical experiments in between several of the songs which present the album as a channel-surfing experience, presumably in which the songs are always found on that orange channel.

Anyway, it looks like Frank Ocean is kick-starting a true career here, one with a whole lot of potential. The fact that his sexual identity has become a news topic is interesting, mostly for the fact that a host of Hip Hop figures have rushed to support and acclaim him (including the shock-rapper and usually vile label and “collective” partner Tyler the Creator), a field often not know for its celebration of sexual and gender equality. That story is news itself, but an album this solid and creative is its own news in its own right. This album features great vocals, left-field experimentation both in music and lyrical approach, and fully realized sounds from start to finish.

r-9/10

*Channel ORANGE is available now on i-tunes and will be up on e-music, Amazon, and as a physical copy at retailers everywhere (except Target!) next week.

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