Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Frank Ocean - channel ORANGE

Frank Ocean - channel ORANGE
Island/Def Jam, 2012
Four stars

Last year, Frank Ocean sneaked into my end of the year honorable mentions with his innovative mixtape Nostalgia. Ultra, something that may not have seemed like anything to write home about to someone unfamiliar with my musical tastes, but something that was a bit of a surprise for me. Just like the vast majority of the population, I had no idea who Frank Ocean even was until last summer, but furthermore, he was a part of a genre (R&B) that I have very little love for. But Nostalgia was something fresh, a guy with a great voice spinning catchy, well written songs of his own or reinventing those of others. There were a few duds in the tracklist, but those were mostly forgivable, especially given the strength of originals like "Swim Good," or the yearning, emotional spin he put on Coldplay's "Strawberry Swing." But the reinventions - which also laid down new lyrics on The Eagles' "Hotel California" and MGMT's "Electric Feel" - were a gimmick, and as good as they were, it was hard to believe that Ocean would make them a regular least if he was hoping to be taken seriously as a musician.

Fast forward a year, and Frank Ocean is one of the biggest names in his genre, and for good reason. His talent is undeniable in anything he does, whether he's lending guest vocals (Kanye West and Jay-Z's Watch the Throne, also from last summer) or writing his own songs. He's also entered the news lately with a very honest and very public coming out, and that event will have many a critic reading very deeply into the music and lyrics on his major label debut, searching for a profound statement. That debut, called channel ORANGE, earned a sky-high 9.5 from Pitchfork last week - the kind of score that normally means Album of the Year contention - and while it's certainly a solid and interesting set of songs, I don't think it quite deserves that level of acclaim. That said, it's all about hype in this industry, and Ocean certainly has that on his side as he charges into the summer that is going to turn him from underground favorite into global superstar.

Upon a single listen to channel ORANGE, its hard to see what the big deal is: these songs meander and wander down roads that are almost impossible to anticipate, the flow is bizarre, with interludes and sound effects meant to simulate a "channel surfing" mentality, and Ocean doesn't have as many moments to show off his vocal prowess as he did on Nostalgia. The material is also all completely original, and while that's probably the right choice for him to make, the reinvention gimmick is missed here. Ocean forgoes choruses on a regular basis, opting instead for ambitious song structures that don't always work. But once all expectations and pre-conceptions of Ocean as an artist drop away, as they inevitably will, what's left is a compelling (if flawed) document of one of today's most intriguing and talented young artists. Look no further than album centerpiece, the 10-minute long "Pyramids," to know that Ocean's ambitions extend far beyond simple pop or R&B music. It's a two-part suite, with a driving introduction and a slow-burning, seductive second half that eventually gives way to an incendiary guitar solo from none other than John Mayer. Mayer sticks around for the sexy instrumental that is "White," and his presence is deeply welcomed both times, but the album has no time to linger on ideas: it moves along with a jarring and fast-paced clip, and if you blink, you might miss the transitions.

Perhaps the most prevalent of the personalities that Ocean adopts across channel ORANGE's 17 tracks is that of Stevie Wonder, who, himself a shape-shifting musical force, proves to be one of Ocean's most obvious influences. He lets loose a gorgeous falsetto on the chorus of "Thinkin' Bout You," references some of Stevie's biggest pop hits on the all-too-short "Fertilizer," and throws out the album's truest chorus and hook on "Sweet Life," never drifting too far from the musical territory that Wonder mined on key records like Innervisions and Songs in the Key of Life. But just like Nostalgia was more than a "cover" album, ORANGE is more than a tribute to one of Ocean's favorites, and he does a lot here to distinguish himself from the other figures in his genre, both past and present. Songs like "Super Rich Kids," "Monks," and "Pink Matter" (with an entrancing verse from Outkast's Andre 3000) veer more towards hip hop than Ocean has attempted yet (though, as a member of the Odd Future group, which consists mostly of rappers, it was only a matter of time until that influence manifested itself). Meanwhile, Ocean unleashes one of the best pop songs of the summer with "Lost," which sports an indelible groove and an addictive swagger that will doubtlessly land it on many a playlist this season.

But even with all of his musical ambition and varied styles, Ocean is at his best when he opens himself up and lets the world see the man behind it all. The song where that happens, the climactic "Bad Religion", is the closest he gets to the kind of "grand statement" that critics will be searching for here. The song, awash with strings and ringing organ chords, sees the protagonist climbing into a taxi at the end of a depressing and demoralizing night. He's looking for answers, for somewhere to think and someone to talk to, and he asks the cab driver to "be his shrink for the hour" and to help him "outrun the demons."  Everything builds towards the rousing "chorus," where Ocean belts, in one of his most spectacular vocal moments on record, "if it brings me to my knees, it's a bad religion." The result is the album’s peak and one of the best songs of the year. It's a sonic feast, a lyrical tour-de-force, an affecting and relatable piece of storytelling, and a vocal powerhouse all in one. It's also over far too quickly. Clocking in at 2:55, "Bad Religion" ends just when you think it could build into something truly epic. It's a shame for a record that has at least ten minutes of throwaway material (grating moments like "Sierra Leone" and "Crack Rock" come to mind, as do the utterly worthless intro and outro tracks), but when the song is so good, it's hard to complain.

Ultimately, while channel ORANGE may not be quite worth the profusion of hype it is certain to collect this week and throughout the rest of the year (look for this near the top of many a year end list), it is a solid and fascinating release from a charismatic and promising artist. Ocean doesn't quite sustain that promise throughout, occasionally stumbling on his own ambitious drive, but the album's highlights showcase a dizzying amount of talent and charm that demand to be noticed. For listeners more at home in this genre, channel ORANGE may well be a masterpiece, but I think it's equally notable that Ocean has been able to reach beyond those boundaries so effortlessly. His appeal reaches far and wide, thanks to his voice and his eclectic musical palette, and while the resulting cluster of musical ideas is hard for me to love completely, it's also impossible not to respect.

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