A lot of music comes out every Tuesday. Some of it is good. Most of it is not. And occasionally, while sorting through the catchy and the bland and the quite strange, you will come across something valuable.
Frank Ocean writes very well about himself and those he has loved. Listening to his full-length debut channel ORANGE is like being presented with a box of intimate diaries and breathtaking fictions. Also, slow jams. So, to try to distill it into a few neat paragraphs leaves one feeling emotionally unqualified. Want to unpack these gorgeous lyrics? Brother, this is denser than a neutron star.
But if authenticity is to be celebrated, channel ORANGE earns a parade. There’s no trifle here. There’s no filler. There’s no disconnect. It’s popular to praise Ocean for his fearlessness, and that’s the thesis of every review, every profile, every cultural analysis that will arise from a casual googling. That’s the way it should be. This album (and the events surrounding it, separate from the music) point to a “heart on his sleeve” M.O. that marries naturally to Ocean’s soulful, yearning, triumphant, deeply sorrowful flavor of R&B.
However, that’s not abnormal (read: shouldn’t be abnormal) for a singer-songwriter. Know who else is fearlessly honest and open about their hearts and minds? Joni Mitchell. Alanis Morrisette. Ben Gibbard. Sufjan Stevens. Adele. Taylor Swift. Kanye West. You get the point. What, then, makes Frank Ocean’s channel ORANGE remarkable?
He hits home, and that’s scary for some people.
Exhibit A: “Bad Religion.” Now, not everyone has had an emotional breakdown in a taxi over unrequited love and the anguish of hiding one’s sexual identity. But everyone has loved someone and not been loved in return. Everyone has been obsessed (“If it brings me to my knees, it’s a bad religion”). Everyone has hidden parts of themselves. Everyone has felt crushed. The gift of Frank Ocean is being sparklingly personal and infinitely adaptable in a single song. “I can never make him love me/Make him love me” may not be the words you’ve said, but the feeling is one you’ve felt, carried by a voice that speaks fluent emotion.
Just from a pop music perspective, though? channel ORANGE is a home run, to put it mildly. “Thinkin Bout You,” the opening track, is a less dire prelude to “Bad Religion,” but it’s undeniable. With clever words sliced from conversation (“Got a beach house I can sell you in Idaho”), a melody eating at your brain in falsetto and the smoothest of smooth jam beats, it’s arresting.
The middle of the album largely meditates on wealth (“Super Rich Kids”) and status (“Sweet Life”) and crack rock (… “Crack Rock”). It’s not tiresome posturing, though, and each song is more thoughtful than the last. “Sweet Life” turns in some of the best lines in an album swimming in them, Scrooge McDuck style. With a killer intro and a swingin’ chorus, Ocean sells his discomfort with wealth (“You had a landscaper, and a housekeeper/Since you were born”) without losing any flair for the poetic (“The starshine always kept you warm”). On “Super Rich Kids,” Ocean expounds upon the privileges afforded to kids with “too many white lines and whites lies,” with a hefty assist from the laconic flow of Odd Future-mate Earl Sweatshirt.
The magnum opus of the album, “Pyramids,” is a sprawling R&B operetta about a particularly alluring stripper. “Private Dancer,” it’s not. The track covers a variety of terrains, sometimes feeling a little overlong, but it rewards second listens. “Lost,” similarly, lingers in seedy territory (here, destructive love and cooking dope). It’s an earworm.
“Monks” contains vivid imagery, and “Pink Matter” benefits from an assured Andre 3000 feature. But “Forrest Gump” wraps channel ORANGE up and puts a bow on it. The song is strong and quiet, a lazy summer groove that’s sweet and painful. Ocean sells it, and then earns commission. It is the album’s secret weapon.
channel ORANGE seems richer every time the play button is pressed. Vocally, Ocean’s voice can’t be overestimated — he’s got pipes and intuitive delivery. The album stays firm in its R&B sensibilities, taking time to add in some soul and jazz where it’s needed. Ocean knows what he’s doing. Hopefully, he’ll be doing it for a long time.
(2) “Thinkin Bout You”
(5) “Sweet Life”
(14) “Bad Religion”
(15) “Forrest Gump”