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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Frank Ocean: channel ORANGE (Physical Release Date: 7-17-2012)

        The backstory of channel ORANGE is a long one, so get comfortable. The album's creator, Frank Ocean, first achieved real fame in 2010, when he hopped aboard that buzz-factory of a hip-hop collective known as Odd Future. When the group exploded last year, thanks in large part to leader Tyler, the Creator's indomitable single Yonkers, Ocean capitalized on the moment by releasing the terrific mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra. Far and away the most widely appreciated full-length by any member of the collective, Ultra simultaneously served as its slice of sublime R&B, and one hell of a drum roll for the kid's proper, studio-produced debut. By the time Odd Future released their second mixtape earlier this year, it already felt vaguely over-shadowed by the ever-building channel ORANGE hype. Suffice to say, Ocean's proper first disc would have been buried if it was anything less than great. Thankfully, we won't have to worry about that.

         Picking the first single to represent CO must have been a headache: The album is so varied, so robust in sound, and so unpredictable that no single tune could dream of representing its whole. Given the challenge, Def Jam has chosen well with proper opener Thinkin Bout You, a woozy love ballad in which Ocean's voice seamlessly slips between swag-filled baritone, and sky-scraping falsetto. Its defiantly minimal instrumentation flies straight in the face of today's bombastic Dance/Club chart toppers, allowing its bass thump to sink down into your bones, permitting Ocean's voice space to take flight. Don't get too used to the less-is-more approach, though: Sweet Life throws all manner of string instruments and layered vocals through your headphones in order to pump up its party-ready mockery of the 1%, while the nearly ten-minute Pyramids stands as one of the most expansive, ambitious electro-jams in recent memory.

        At first listen, one could be forgiven for missing the home-spun, hissing-cassette nature of Nostalgia, Ultra, which featured the kind of raw, amateur excitement people usually associate with indie rock, or folk. On further listens, however, CO reveals itself to be nothing less than the perfect follow-up, maintaining similar themes and textures, while boldly stepping forth into studio shine. channel ORANGE is about 20 minutes longer than its predecessor, all of its samples masterfully mixed and measured, and all from the same guy that essentially lifted Coldplay, The Eagles (American Wedding, which cannot be linked due to Ocean's lack of authorization... oh, old rock stars...), and MGMT wholesale just one short year ago. These are all technical aspects: they speak nothing to evolution that Ocean has undergone as a songwriter, a story teller, and a public figure.

        Much has been made about a recent open letter that Ocean posted to his twitter, in which the singer vaguely and poetically opens up about a homosexual relationship he engaged in starting at the age of 19. It's a brave move, one that has gained him fans, and doubtlessly lost others. His place as an openly bisexual man in a genre-sphere often characterized by aggressive heterosexually, and even bigotry, is worthy of note, but it's not what makes his story special. The letter itself is gorgeous in its simplicity and truth, and those who have both read it, and listened to channel ORANGE, will always heavily associate the two with one another, for better or worse. Like Bon Iver's For Emma, Forever Ago, or Nick Drake's Pink Moon before it, CO is an album who's backstory will always color the way in which people hear it, and the crooner himself is helping that myth along.

        A week ago, Ocean made his national television debut on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon with the violin-drenched lament Bad Religion. The performance won rave reviews, largely because of the man's lights-out voice, but don't think that the choice of song was an accident. The track in question details a torturous affair, in which Ocean poignantly shouts, "Unrequited love/To me it's nothing but a one man cult/.../I could never make him love me." The gender pronoun used here is sure to turn heads, as are a few others on the disc, which might be some real blood-letting on the part of the troubadour, but could just as well be one hell of a red herring. Ocean is clearly in story-telling mode here, alternating protagonists between spoiled Cali-brats (Super Rich Kids), morally-eroding women (Lost), drug abusers (Crack Rock), and stoned philosophy majors (Pink Matter). For all we know, channel ORANGE could be comprised entirely of fiction, but none of that will prevent that feeling of knowing catharsis that washes over you during proper closer Forrest Gump, wherein Ocean baits us once more, declaring, "You run my mind, boy." We'll never know the truth, and that's just perfect.

        CO is not without fault: This particular writer is decidedly more fond of the album's second half than its first, and even the back side stores semi-snoozer Monks. But the positive here so greatly over-shadows the negative that it's easy to get rapturous when discussing it, especially considering the musical landscape that it enters into. R&B is essentially a lost genre, left for dead in favor of euro-club-leaning radio jams that are about a year or two away from finally admitting they'd rather be Dubstep. Ocean's disc breaths life into an abandoned form, one that hasn't been widely popular since Justin Timberlake brought sexy back. It might not be perfect, it's pretty damn elating to hear someone working so hard to craft a classic on his first at-bat. channel ORANGE is robust and celebratory, spanning genres, coming to you with its heart on its sleeve, and beckoning you to the dance floor all at the same time. If that's not worth all the hype, then I don't know what is.

Grade: A-

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