(Def Jam; 2012)
By Brent Ables | 26 July 2012
People want to talk about Frank Ocean, but I just want to listen to “Pyramids.” I’d listen to it with you if I could, together imagining cheetahs on the loose, watching each other’s knees buckle when the beat kicks in. We’d probably have to get high, because this song doesn’t make a shit-lick of sense sober. Above all, I need someone to pause for a moment with me and consider just how thoroughly and magnificently strange this ten-minute behemoth really is. Like, how did Cleopatra end up in bed with Samson? If the song is a parable of lost innocence or elegance, why does Ocean’s narrator luxuriate so wantonly for the second half of the track? What’s with the cheetahs? And you’d remind me that great art explains itself, and mutter something about Inland Empire (2006) and the digital excavation of the Los Angeles underworld. And I’d say: OK. I’m in. And then we’d listen to “Bad Religion” and cry.
People have already been comparing Channel Orange to Kanye West’s masterful My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010). It’s an inexact comparison, but one I find useful. They’re both big albums which critically reflect on lifestyles usually celebrated by rap and R&B artists, and both records were released in the context of intense public scrutiny and discussion of their creators’ personal lives. My love for both records is directly proportional to my complete indifference to the public conversation surrounding them; I care as little about Frank Ocean’s sexuality as I do about Kanye West’s dick pics (although Kanye’s boundless narcissism makes indifference a kind of labor all its own). But what ultimately distinguishes Frank Ocean’s work here from Fantasy and the other reflective, morally conflicted superstars of the moment is neither its introversion (Drake’s got that covered) nor its extroversion (Kanye again), but its lack of a central persona as such. Frank Ocean disperses himself into a sea of humanity, goes deep, and transmits back complex missives that sometimes appropriately sound as if they were relayed from under the weight of a mile of saltwater. He becomes the (if you allow me a brief Game of Thrones reference) Patchface of popular music: “keepin’ it surreal” at his beach house in Idaho, rhymingly reporting on seabottom happenings, splitting the difference between sense and nonsense with the grace and conviction proper to a born entertainer.
Channel Orange, this document of the underearth, is in content a kaleidoscopic view of life in the greater Los Angeles area (including Arkansas and Egypt) that skips as easily across class divisions as it does narrative perspectives. Thus “Sweet Life” is a second-person account of the lethargy of luxury while “Crack Rock” speaks to the much less privileged; “Bad Religion” is a deeply personal ballad; and “Super Rich Kids”—you get the idea. Channel Orange is less a vehicle for self-expression or a platform for social commentary than it is a work of bonafide literature: Ocean gives his characters life and form but lets their decisions shape their destinies, neither praising nor condemning them in the process. If Nas is defined by his Christ complex and Yeezy’s his own angel and devil all at once, Frank Ocean is the stoic demiurge that steps back from his creation and observes all with considered dispassion. He has none of Nas’s bitter sense of purpose and little of Kanye’s magnetic catastrophism, but makes up for them with a collected charisma all his own.
Which means that people want to talk about Frank Ocean. But isn’t this captivating, complex record steering us at nearly every possible turn away from its creator, whether towards his surroundings, friends, drug dealers, mythological forebears, or spirit animals? Or, y’know, all this incredible music. Ocean largely eschews the sinister drowsiness of the Weeknd without turning to the sort of hyperbright sandblasts that rule the charts. This record’s palette feels more organic, striking a nice balance between slinky drum machines and traditional instrumentation: the “Bennie and the Jets”-aping piano of “Super Rich Kids,” the jazzy electric organ of “Crack Rock,” the sweeping orchestral dip of “Sierra Leone.” Though the album does have a few Hot 97 moments, namely Pharrell bringing up the house lights for “Sweet Life” while the justly celebrated “Bad Religion,” with its widescreen heartbreak and faux-gospel arrangement, stands (or bows) as a strong candidate for single of the year.
For the most part, however, the album maintains a quieter tone and a relaxed, even casual, pace. It’s not a sound to win over everyone. As CMG’s David Goldstein has eloquently declared, “It’d probably reveal great truths to me if I listened to it in the dark, stoned, only staring at the blinking stereo light, but I don’t really smoke weed anymore and listen to 90% of my music outdoors.” To which one can only concede: this is a nighttime album, and despite its remarkable popularity, probably isn’t going to be the ideal record to kickstart any summer barbecue or house party. It can be drowsy, but the somnolence is likely to lull you under if you give it the chance. To me, it feels as intimate as a midnight conversation with a close friend.
Others at CMG have also complained about the pacing of Channel Orange. It’s not perfect, to be sure: the stretch of songs up to “Sweet Life” kicks things off a little sleepily, “Forrest Gump” is something of an odd choice for a closer, and the Andre guest verse might logically have been granted a more prominent spot. But this, to me, is a rather minor complaint considering the quality of almost every track. Even a tossed-off interlude like “Fertilizer” is worth listening to every time through, and—let’s face it—how often can you say that about a skit? Besides, it doesn’t seem impossible that the oft-haphazard structural choices were intentional. What is Los Angeles, after all, but a sprawling human narrative with no logic or center? Ocean’s panoramic explorations are more suited to self-contained pieces than a unified, cohesive narrative.
For some people, I imagine, Channel Orange also feels like something else. Like vindication. Not just for Ocean himself—although God knows he’s wildly surpassed everyone’s expectations with this work—but for Odd Future as a collective. They were introduced to the world as a group of amoral, attention-hungry shock artists whose talent on the mic was questionable at best. Tyler remains as insufferable as ever, although his star continues to rise; Earl Sweatshirt has laid down some great verses (including a lovable tongue-twister on “Super Rich Kids”), but has yet to make his first definitive statement. Both artistically and commercially, it’s Frank Ocean at the head of the pack now. Channel Orange is going to be the standard to beat for some time. And it might very well be the best R&B album of our young decade.