If you thought RnB was dead, think again. While Usher and Chris Brown are hitting the electronic circuit, Frank Ocean croons his way through a record reminiscent of Maxwell and the sounds of Jazz classics. The beats are fresh, but simultaneously encased in the old school soulfulness of decades past. The difference between Ocean’s creation and the efforts of his predecessors is that Channel ORANGE is a cinematic angst of a broken man with fragmented relationships. The beauty of the album lies in its vision and its lyricism. There can be little doubt that Ocean is one of the great writers of contemporary RnB, and Channel ORANGE is a dynamic showcase of his noteworthy talent.
Ocean’s brand of RnB is not the sappy, exaggerated chick-flick bliss circa R. Kelly, Usher or even The Dream. Instead it is a grimy, smooth story of the sorrow of relationships, and a man having to trudge his way through the messes of life. This may sound like an exhausting record that manifests into self-pity, yet Ocean’s voice is honest and inviting. His lyrics carry a resonating truth that surpasses any frustration at what might be considered an acute version of male PMS. In contrast to the RnB records of recent times – which have often led fans to believe that RnB is a lost genre – Channel ORANGE is evocative in its spirit and crisp in its approach lyrically, conceptually and instrumentally.
The production of the record flows fluently and emphasises Ocean’s ability to choose instrumentals that compliment his tone. The tempo of the album is almost perfectly balanced to carry the weight of a true RnB record. The beats are authentic, managing to shy away from being overproduced – a major plus as they highlight rather than overpower Ocean’s vocals. In an age where genres continually mesh to form a fixed sound, Channel ORANGE manages to be something “new”, maybe not quite unheard, but definitely never heard like this. “Super Rich Kids” may sound like a N.E.R.D replica (compare the beat of the track to N.E.R.D’s “Maybe”), “Pilot Jones” could be a beat designed for Tyler the Creator by Syd the Kid, and many of the tracks incorporate a jazzy undertone akin to Maxwell, yet Ocean makes this record his own. His vocal performance – that distinctly Oceanesque falsetto with its deep-seated ache – tell listeners exactly who Frank Ocean is, and what he’s about. It’s also satisfying to note that the foundations he laid in Nostalgia, Ultra have filtered through Channel ORANGE. The continuity lies in the sounds of the car doors, trunks and radios of Nostalgia, Ultra and the PlayStation, channel changing ordinary movements of Channel ORANGE. The interludes are a part of the concept of a hopelessly heartbroken man who can only channel surf, dream and reminisce, and like Nostalgia, Ultra, Ocean demonstrates his aptitude for telling stories.
Ultimately, Ocean’s lyrical display on almost every song as well as his emotionally-charged vocals are what captures listeners. Channel ORANGE is an intelligent album, and the presence of a concept is refreshing in a genre that generally favours the safe over the experimental. Traditionally, RnB lyrics have always been accompanied by a healthy dose of rolled-eyes or mocking imitations (close eyes, clutch mic desperately, and imagine the scrunched up face of a woman in labour to get the gist). Ocean provides something new in that every song cleverly contains well-thought lyrics and each song is a sentence of an ongoing novel. The “tornado” and messy room of “Thinkin About You” is metaphorical of Ocean’s ruined life, while the second verse cohesively expresses the simple yet destructive, deceptive mind-games of a relationship. The story then moves forward into the narrative of lost love through drug use and the very nature of a meaningless, empty lifestyle. Ocean is definitely an emo artist, yet the depth of his words and the passion of his voice allow his weight to be a force of artistry rather than an annoyance.
While Channel ORANGE certainly has its high notes, there are some low points. The “White” rendition featuring John Mayer is beautiful and Mayer’s guitar riff adds a gentleness that evokes a fragile soulfulness, but the vocal version on the Odd Future Tape Vol. 2 far exceeds the instrumental placed on Channel ORANGE, as Ocean’s voice and lyrics are the heart of the track. Earl Sweatshirt’s verse on “Super Rich Kids” is equally disappointing, and even though the rapper posed the question: “Guess who was sick and high while he recorded his rich kids verse..” on Twitter, surely he could’ve done better. Channel ORANGE is also a grower. Unlike Nostalgia, Ultra the standout tracks of the record don’t initially make you stand up and pledge allegiance to Frank Ocean. The record requires a certain amount of patience and good listening to really get its audience going, and even then it’s hard to tell whether anything on Channel ORANGE truly outshines “Swim Good”, “Novacane”, or “We All Try”.
This is, however, Ocean’s debut album. Channel ORANGE coupled with Nostalgia, Ultra creates a clear sense of the kind of RnB artist Ocean has aspired to be. The smooth singer now stands at the forefront of RnB and as such the days of “you got it/you got it bad”, have given way to the “Crack Rock” ruins of shattered relationships. Channel ORANGE may fall short in some regards, but it’s still record that will resonate with its listeners, and it’s sure to be one of the best RnB albums of 2012.
Standouts: Thinkin About You, Pyramids, Pilot Jones, Crack Rock, Lost
Listen to the record via Frank Ocean’s blog here!