Frank Ocean’s a rare sort of creature, isn’t he? I’m not just referring to his recently coming out as bisexual a week or so ago, I’m really more concerned with the nature of his music. RnB has, of late become a homogenised melange of David Guetta-ized dance pop and the increasingly poor output of the once passable Beyonce and Rihanna. You might even have begun to fear that all adventurousness had been bled out of a genre that only a few short years ago had produced some of the most exciting work in popular music; RnB has seen diminishing artistic returns versus ludicrously high commercial returns. It is a sick and dying genre, and if you don’t agree then look at it this way: where there used to be D’Angelo, Lauryn Hill, Mary J Blige,The Fugees, Aaliyah, Maxwell, TLC and Erykah Badu (who is still admittedly active) at the top, now we have Usher, Chris Brown, Ne-Yo and Rihanna. As such, a man willing to release a 9 minute song that casts Cleopatra as a modern day stripper is a much needed breath of fresh air.
Channel Orange’s nearest comparison is probably D’Angelo’s work from about 12 years ago, but that similarity lies only with the albums slinkier, more minimalist songs. The songs on this album manage to retain a sense of simplicity that quite belies the various tiny, idiosyncratic flourishes in each song. They’re layered with little hooks and oddments without ever sounding cluttered or busy. In spite of all the little extras, the songs retain a sense of space that, at times, almost seems like dubstep, akin to that of James Blake. Frank Ocean has taken various styles and unexpected influences and fashioned them into something altogether different, almost psychedelic in its expansiveness, yet simultaneously intimate, laid back and, on occasion, almost moving in its simple, elegant beauty.
The unusual approach is best exemplified on one of the standout cuts, ‘Bad Religion’. It stands near the end of the album and showcases not the pinnacle (that’s Pyramids), but everything that makes the album great. Beginning with a haunting swell of organ music, the track contains buzzes and interwoven snippets of background singing, but the production is devastatingly understated. It’s confessional song writing done as a confessional would actually sound, there is only one brief burst of histrionics, but for the most part remains stoically melancholy. This is a million miles away from most R&B, with its vocal acrobatics substituting for actual emotion. This is a soul being laid bare.
On the flip side is ‘Pyramids’, the 9 minute, Cleopatra as a hooker/stripper, tale mentioned earlier. It flits between every conceivable iteration of Oceans music, starting as dubstep, moving into dance territory with buzzing synths and swinging drums before easing into slinky R&B. It’s a grand, epic, ambitious odyssey of a song that, as far as I can work out, spans several thousand years and is wildly libellous towards a certain Queen Cleo. If ‘Bad Religion’ is the yin, then Pyramids is the yang, as it contains the brazen confident, immensely talented Frank Ocean, whereas the other houses his fractured, tortured, conflicted alter ego. It’s amazing that any album should contain such an amazing song, let alone one so diametrically different from the other standout tracks. It shows real scope and real versatility.
Channel Orange, for me, is exactly the type of album I love to listen to. It spans a multitude of subjects, flits between genres or at least is not limited by notions of anything that anyone else might want it to be. You really can get a sense of the confused 19 year old kid Ocean wrote about in his “coming out” letter. He flits between men and women, periods of time, genres – everything. Maybe he’s unsure of himself, or maybe he’s sure enough to do anything he wants, all I know is that the musical result is gorgeous. More importantly, though, I just love the idea of an R&B album that isn’t designed purely to be danceable, but instead is self-expression beyond saying, “I can sing, I can dance and I’m a real ladies man.” Frank Ocean has crafted something of real intellectual depth, full of thought and ideas, both musical and lyrical, and that’s a damned good thing.
My favourite album of two years ago was My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy by Kanye West and this is just as good in its own way. Both have a fearless sense of experimentation, self-exploration (as well as self-expression) and both are utterly fantastic. The only difference is that Channel Orange is much easier to listen to, which is something I urge everyone to do.