Frank Ocean - Channel Orange
I must admit, it's been difficult to assess this album amidst the constant background noise. I've had to extricate myself from the digital frenzy that took hold when Christopher Francis William Ocean unleashed his second album, Channel Orange, to the world yesterday morning. In the 30-odd hours that have passed as of writing, I've seen hastily cobbled together reviews pop up across the blogosphere and thousands of tweets. I've even been chastised for my initial uncertainty as no one, it seemed, could wait to pronounce its brilliance. If you snoozed you lost in the clamber to declare Ocean's genius.
It comes, of course, less than a week after he revealed, through his Tumblr, a "peculiar friendship" which he had with another man while he was in his late teens. Whether it was a PR stunt or a genuinely combative attempt to prepare his audience for songs that touch upon same-sex relationships ('Thinkin Bout You', 'Bad Religion', 'Pink Matter', and 'Forrest Gump' all appear to address a male lover), is open to conjecture - though the latter option is more likely given that a) Ocean was already in possession of burgeoning legions of fans and b) murmurs of gay lyrics had begun to surface when journalists were allowed to listen to the album the previous day.
In writing about Channel Orange, critics have chosen to either focus in on Ocean's sexuality with reductive myopia, or to toss it to one side in post-structuralist disregard. As always, the truth lies somewhere in the middle and it should be pointed out that Ocean's bi- or homosexuality undeniably informs any listening of the album. 'Forrest Gump', for example, is leant added depth by its creator's revelation. A gorgeously warm lament for an impossible love, it becomes all the more poignant when you realise just how impossible the love is, moving from the realm of mere love song towards art that challenges societal norms. However, this is only one facet of a unique record that exists, just like Ocean's deliberately vague 'coming out', outside of rigid signifiers. Channel Orange is tender and yet macho, subtle yet confrontational, heartbreaking but uplifting for its humanity, and it's underpinned by a sound that's schooled in soul and jazz classicism, while all the time pushing into eccentric new territories on the outer reaches of hip hop and RnB.
Similar to Nostalgia, Ultra, the album's pervasive themes are that of sexual awakenings and unrequited love. Moments of lyrical clumsiness exist when he attempts to tackle wider issues, but Ocean deals with the subject of sex with a thoughtfulness and attention to detail that's virtually non-existent in music, hip hop or otherwise. 'Pilot Jones', for example, is a confessional which captures a fumbling early encounter with honesty, humour and sensitivity. When he casts his eagle eye over society at large the results are predictably less consistent, however 'Crack Rock' is a perceptive analysis of the US government's failure to confront the country's drug problem, while 'Pyramids' juxtaposes the life of a modern day prostitute with that of Queen Cleopatra in a cinematic masterpiece that sees Ocean revelling in extended metaphor.
I won't be the first to mention Stevie Wonder in the context of Channel Orange and I certainly won't be the last, but the elastic moog bounce and slap bass groove of 'Pyramids' – a ten minute opus - evokes the funk allure of Fulfillingness' First Finale-era Stevie in a way that many have tried - and failed – to reproduce. However, it's as the pep in Ocean's step gives way to waves of grimy, synthesised arpeggios that he really showcases his abilities, taking us from the opulence of ancient Egypt to the present day, a crude western world where tackiness and sleaze rule. Images of cheetahs are replaced by punters as they paw at a young woman, forced to sell herself in order to make ends meet. The change of mood is done with dextrous seamlessness, Ocean evoking smoke machine fog and strobe-lit seediness as masterfully as a stumbling Mike Skinner on 'Blinded By The Lights'. It's an ambitious suite (it beats both 'Bohemian Rhapsody' and 'Paranoid Android' by a clear three minutes) that ebbs and flows with awe-inducing ease and it's a resoundingly extravagant success.
Elsewhere, the album version of 'Bad Religion' fortunately lives up to Ocean's mesmerising Jimmy Fallon performance, while 'Super Rich Kids'' lurching piano groove builds beautifully and could be this year's slowest hit. It's also notable for featuring the sole vocal contribution from an Odd Future member (Tyler was restricted to mastering duties), coming in the form of an uber laid-back Earl Sweatshirt cameo. His piece said, a reverent Sweatshirt bows out with a half-embarrassed "yeah…" as though letting Ocean re-take centre stage.
Without delving into each and every track, any of which could be plucked out as future singles, I'll sign off with the assertion that Channel Orange is a superbly forward-thinking piece of work that places Ocean lightyears ahead of his peers. Infinitely more intelligent than anything Abel Tesfaye has given us, a comparison to Drake would, quite frankly, do a disservice. Make no mistake, this 24 year-old has the potential to join Cooke, Gaye and Wonder in the pantheon of soul and RnB greats. "You're running on my mind boy," he pines on 'Forrest Gump', but on Channel Orange Frank Ocean ensures he has ingrained himself into our collective consciousness for a long time to come. I've taken a step back from the hype and it's still hard to see this album as anything other than a landmark.