With the release of his major label debut Channel Orange, Odd Future crooner Frank Ocean strikes paradoxical gold. The singer’s delicate voice plays over A-list guest appearances, controversial blog posts and witty musings on the hypocrisy of success. Despite his accessible old school vocals, Ocean proves he’s nobody’s darling and that the outsider throne fits just right.
Last year’s rock sample-heavy Nostalgia/Ultra was Ocean’s introduction to the world beyond shock hop collective Odd Future. Between the meditative existential jam “We All Try” and Eagles redux “American Wedding,” the singer put on a primer for thoughtful, impressive R&B with sample tracks that were as punchy as they were unobtrusive.
In the 80s they used to call this “New Jack Swing.” Slap a hip-hop backing track to get the dance floor going and weave an old-fashioned, multi-octave vocal performance over it and you get a recipe for chart toppers. It’s thirty years later, but the New Jack Swing methodology appears with great effect and prominence in Frank Ocean’s new work.
Channel Orange features guest appearances by the likes of Pharrell, John Mayer and Andre 3000 in a mix of styles that range from the Kanye-esque on “Sierra Leone” to funk soul on “Crack Rock” and a bit of classic prog rock homage on “Pyramids,” a song with an outro strangely reminiscent of Roger Waters’ “It’s A Miracle.”
The album is a showcase in vocal talent and a new urban sound that blends genres in a sampler of moods and textures that feels very dynamic. The production surprises in fun, nuanced ways that are good for a two step or a casual head bob alike
Conceptually, Channel Orange is a smattering of stories about priviledge and misunderstanding. Where Ocean’s production skill is readily apparent, here his lyrical statements come off as overly ambitious and quickly become trite. The broad scope and remarkable clarity present in Ocean’s previous insights seems lacking in this offering.
Ocean’s attempts to critique affluent culture, wealthy provincialism and the basic ignorance of the in-crowd are a bold assault at rich trash and a system of assumptions that inform modern celebrity. The attack becomes ill-advised as Ocean’s sardonic quips stumble into the murky realm of embodiment.
If he set out to paint an outsider’s portrait of a skewed culture of thoughtless poolside beauties and wealthy amorality, he succeeded only in creating an album that could become anthemic for the very people it lampoons. Careful Frank, you’re treading in the age-old cultural booby trap: you become what you behold.
The quality of the stellar vocal performance and moving musical suites loses power behind lines like “a coke white tiger woke us from our slumber” and what seems like an overly obsessive fascination with stunted mindsets.
The ambivalent meaning behind the album treads further through the emotional minefield Ocean laid last week as he announced via a rather poetic blog post that he had a longstanding relationship with another man. Heartfelt as it seemed, the announcement came at a curious time as it coincided with the album’s release. You begin to wonder where the line between promotional gimmick and authentic confession blurs. Despite the wailing agony on the condition of unrequited love and confusion expressed in tracks like “Thinkin About You” and “Bad Religion,” the added dimension of Frank Ocean’s sexuality plays like a needless distraction.
Regardless, I sincerely doubt Frank Ocean gives a fuck what I or anyone else thinks. The predominant feel from the album is “this is what I do and how I feel and if you can’t dig it, dig something else” and good on him for it. The sentiment is by no means unique, but tastefully executed in a way that channels the vocal presence of D’Angelo without falling for the trashy boasts of Drake.