Vintage R&B: Frank Ocean’s channelORANGE
“the best song wasn’t the single, but you weren’t either” – Frank Ocean
Although Frank Ocean isn’t a household name (yet), channelORANGE has been one of the more eagerly anticipated albums of 2012. Perhaps it is because he has followed the old-school approach of selectively and intermittently dropping brilliant singles for the music cognoscenti to nibble and whet their appetite? Or, perhaps, he is finally getting the opportunity to produce his own material? (For most of his young career Frank Ocean (born Christopher Breaux) has been ghostwriting for other R&B and Hip-Hop acts.) This album was certainly worth the hype and wait.
channelORANGE is both backwards looking and firmly situated in the current day. While the music will lull you into a peaceful state of mind, Ocean is witty and clever lyricist with lots of buried double entendre and coy jabs. On moments throughout the record, Ocean channels 70s era R&B and Soul with delicately lush and jazz-infused tracks that evoke Stevie Wonder‘s Innervisions. Just check the throwback soul-drenched songs “Thinkin’ About You”, the story of a lover left behind and wondering about the other’s thoughts, or “Sweet Life”, an observation on a pampered life, or “Super Rich Kids”, a languid social critique of the “plasticity” and impersonality of those with too much – note the subtle sample of JJ from Good Times or the overt reworking of the classic Mary J Blige “Real Love.” It’s Ocean ability to weave past and present into a perfect and delicate blend like “Pilot Jones” with its subtle electronic production elements framing a tender ballad about “falling apart”. Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that given the overwhelming over-production on so many pop and hip-hop records of late, many artists are responding by scaling back and returning the focus to voice, lyrics, and rhythm.
For those who enjoy the songcraft and sweet sound of 60s and 70s soul and jazz fusion, channelOrange will be a welcome oasis in a sea of excess. However, one exception to the backwards gazing is the techno-dance riff laden nine minute, mini-odyssey “Pyramids”. But, Ocean slows the beat down to a near crawl while carefully crooning his love-lorn (obsessional) ode, filled with praise and anxiety. Listening to the track you sense the narrator’s growing obsession, confusion, and uncertainty and by song’s end you wonder: “Is he going after his queen?. (Something about the character of his lover “Cleopatra” is strangely reminiscent of other “femme fatales” like the lovers in “My Guitar Gently Weeps” and “Lola”.)
Stop reading this and check out Frank Ocean’s stellar channelORANGE in its entirety here.
Other songs I really love, “Lost” (a Damon Albarn sounding global romp) and “Bad Religion” (a musical taxicab confessional).