There’s something of an elephant in this review’s metaphorical room, so let’s get it out of the way now. Frank Ocean isn’t heterosexual. You see, just over two weeks ago Ocean posted an extract from Channel Orange’s album inlay on his Tumblr, which described his experience of falling in love with his friend when he was aged 19. Said friend was male. I know, terrifying right? I’m sure your face is twisted into a mixture of despair, fear and shock at this hideous revelation.
Well, hopefully it isn’t, but if the world of hip-hop had a communal face then it would have adopted that expression when it found out. You see, the hip-hop community have never taken too kindly to the LGBTQ community. Even the collective OFWGKTA (Odd Future for short), of which Ocean is a member, have been criticised for using homophobic lyrics. All this means that when Ocean – one of the rising stars of the industry – came out, no one was entirely sure what the reaction would be. Luckily, it’s been generally positive, but it’s still depressing to think that even in the 21st century many people expected there to be a vicious backlash to the news.
So, Channel Orange was already culturally significant even before most people were able to listen to it, but can the product stand up to this? The opener – simply titled Start – is something of a nonentity, consisting of some muffled speech and samples of start-up sounds from electronic devices. Luckily it only lasts for 46 seconds before moving on to the sublime Thinkin Bout You which sets the tone for the album as a whole. It’s a deceptively simple RnB track: smooth and composed, with a slightly syncopated rhythm, and Ocean’s vocals sounding wonderful over a surprising range of pitches. It also immediately tackles the aforementioned friend, discussing the simultaneous pain and joy of unrequited love.
Bad Religion continues with the same topic, with Ocean discussing his feelings with a stranger: “It’s nothing but a one-man cult and cyanide inside my styrofoam cup… It’s a bad religion to be in love with someone who could never love you.” It also gives Ocean an opportunity to discuss his opinions of religion, and the way that he opens up feels quite poignant and is again matched with ambient production which harkens back to early RnB and soul, with the likes of Stevie Wonder clearly providing strong influences. Bad Religion’s production contrasts with the stark staccato backing to Super Rich Kids, which features fellow Odd Future member Earl Sweatshirt for a disappointingly dull rap on what is a generally mediocre, if occasionally amusing, track attacking consumerism.
There are a couple of other tracks I feel should be discussed, the first being Pyramids, the 10-minute-long centrepiece of the album. It’s definitely an interesting track, flitting between styles and melodies with aplomb. Its lyrics are also interesting, being the most elaborate lyrical metaphor I’ve heard this year, with Cleopatra representing a prostitute and Ocean’s character her (for lack of a more formal word) pimp, who has fallen in love with her. My main problem with it is that I originally heard the track as a severely cut down radio edit, and after listening to the full version it just seemed to drag on slightly too long, losing the epic feel that I’m guessing Ocean was striving for. The other track is Pink Matter, which doesn’t deserve a mention for Ocean’s work but rather for the featured artist, André 3000, who delivers a brilliant verse that (I guess unfortunately) is easily one of the album’s highlights.
Frank Ocean has definitely attempted to make a statement with this album, particularly considering the overwhelming success of the Nostalgia, Ultra mixtape, and to an extent he has succeeded. His style of RnB is pretty much unique at the moment, being understated but with deep and clearly well thought-out production. Channel Orange is a great album but I just don’t get the sense of cohesion I really want to hear from it. At its best, it is phenomenally powerful and moving, but some tracks do feel like Ocean is trying to hide something from the listener. I suppose I can’t entirely blame him for not wanting to open up to complete strangers, but the lack of emotion in certain tracks is what I feel lets the album down. It’s a brilliant piece of work, but not quite good enough to be the masterpiece it could have been.
Favourite Tracks: Bad Religion, Crack Rock, Pink Matter
Least Favourite Track: Sierra Leone