Art isn’t appreciated or interpreted in a vacuum; songwriters’ experiences and intentions when creating their music are inseparable from the songs themselves. Sly Stone was fighting band members and doing heavy drugs when he recorded There’s a Riot Going On, Michael Jackson’s new found adult freedom was reflected by Off the Wall’s ecstatic energy, and R. Kelly’s life had more than its fair share of sex, lies, and intrigue when he wrote Trapped in the Closet. To get the full picture, it’s not only fair but almost required that you understand an artist’s emotional air space.
And that, for Frank Ocean right now, is turbulent. The indie R&B heartthrob’s open letter to the public admitting he had a sexual relationship with another man is one of the bravest actions a musician has taken in years, and it certainly lends a pound of goodwill to Channel Orange. But in reality, the album feels a lot like Ocean’s life probably does at the moment — contradictory, surreal, with dazzling highs and plenty of conflict. While its thematic arc may lack the universal appeal of concept R&B masterpieces like The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill and What’s Going On, Channel Orange is a statement of comparable artistic heft. The album’s emotional tension, its lyrical eccentricities, and the way Ocean molds sounds and ideas around his singular charismatic personality make Channel Orange a bona fide stunner.
Ocean effortlessly mines the treasures of fifty years of black music and sculpts them into a modern R&B template that includes funk, gospel, club beats, rap, and neo-soul. “Sweet Life” is a laid-back blend of 70’s-style organ, brass accents, and the kind of near-perfect hook and melody that’s made for sipping lemonade cocktails on the back porch — it’s like a long lost gem from Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life. On “Super Rich Kids,” Ocean provides a deadpan, rhyme-challenged verse and goofy “Benny and the Jets” piano hook to underscore the idiocy of spoiled Southern California trust fund babies. But just when you’re ready to write these brats off, he gives you pause with the line “We end our day up on the roof, I say I’ll jump I never do.” The kid drops to his death and you’re left with equal parts contempt and pity. It’s the kind of clever songwriting chops that takes years to master, but Ocean’s got them at age twenty four.
An obvious television metaphor runs throughout Channel Orange, but the album’s underlying conceptual thread is Ocean’s personal imbalance. In “Bad Religion,” he laments “I swear I’ve got three lives/ Balanced on my head like steak knives”; the song, along with “Thinkin’ Bout You” and “Forrest Gump,” is written about the man with whom he was romantically involved. But Ocean’s still got a thing for the ladies too, whether they’re bearing his children (“Sierra Leone”), dealing him dope (“Pilot Jones”) or just giving him sexual pleasure (“Pink Matter”). He’s into therapy, enlightenment, and good chakra, but he’s no stranger to a life of excess either — just as easily as he romanticizes drugs, he’ll vividly illustrate how they ruin lives (“Lost” and “Crack Rock”).
What’s so remarkable is how wholeheartedly invested Ocean is in all of his narratives. His imprint is on everything —from his self-assured croon to his knack for crafting peculiar, indelible images through language and metaphor. Ocean effortlessly interweaves obscure street slang, literate cultural references, and bizarre analogies into a lyrical style completely his own. His attention to odd details (“She wash my back three times a day/ This shower head is so amazing.”) and surreal imagery (“A coke white tiger woke us from our slumber.”) are ideal counterpoints to the songs’ emotionally-accessible story lines. While everything is relatable, you always feel completely encased in Ocean’s private universe.
“Pyramids” is perhaps the highlight of the record; Ocean weaves metaphors, triple entendres and multiple narrators into the span of an epic 10 minute track. In the song’s first half, Cleopatra is stolen from legions of followers who writhe to the song’s slap bass and electro-funk rhythm on the palace floor beneath the pyramids. But the track switches gears as the narrator awakens from his dream into an even stranger reality. He watches as one of his prostitutes, Cleopatra, gets dressed and heads off to work the Luxor. When she returns later that night, they make love, but the pimp is now just another john — he admits “your love ain’t free no more.” The bass morphs into an unctuous, strip-joint throb as the track descends into debauchery and a smoky, “Purple Rain”-style guitar solo courtesy of John Mayer (speaking of man whores.) It’s never clear who’s talking or whether you’re awake or dreaming, but it somehow all works, like The Sound and the Fury crossed with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It’s pretty amazing.
Channel Orange isn’t a perfect record. The interludes, while charmingly quirky, seem designed only to keep the television metaphor in place. Ocean could have done a better job providing comedic relief or thematic resonance as opposed to including a friend’s recording of his mother chewing him out over seven dollars. There are moments in the last third of the album (“Pink Matter” especially) where the pace drags, but even that grows on you after a while. While his melodies are approachable, Ocean’s lyrics assume a level of listener patience and intelligence that’s uncommon these days — it practically demands a trip to Rap Genius to decipher everything. But once you’ve come up to speed with Ocean’s vernacular and personal histories, Channel Orange quickly starts to feel like a record you’ve had in your collection for years, a classic that you’re comfortable returning to at the drop of a hat.
Just a week before Channel Orange’s release, Ocean concluded his letter of admission with the touchingly eloquent line: “I feel like a free man. If I listen closely….I can hear the sky falling too.” You can feel his strange mix of both trepidation and utter relief. In the R&B and rap world, where racial views are progressive but sexual policy is practically “don’t ask don’t tell”, Ocean’s disclosure could be a career-ender. But it’s more likely that the record will be a watershed moment of tolerance and compassion. The fact that Channel Orange is such a monument of an album, not because or in spite of Ocean’s confession, but alongside it, is poetic justice indeed.
Frank Ocean – “Sweet Life” – mp3
Frank Ocean – “Pyramids” – mp3