Album Review: Frank Ocean's Channel Orange

By Alan Pyke There's nothing on Channel Orange that captures the deathwish misery of "Swim Good" or the slacker sexiness of "Novacane," but Frank Ocean's debut LP is very enjoyable despite not scaling the pop-epic heights of his first hits. And if the heights aren't so high, neither are the lows so punishingly boring as those on last year's nostalgia, ULTRA EP. Channel Orange is a much more even piece of work, and much more enjoyable as an album. It will be interesting to see how it performs in an industry that's geared towards $0.99 morsels rather than ten-dollar tapestries. It opens with "Thinkin Bout You," which has been available online for about a year now and helped cement the buzz Ocean had built with nostalgia, ULTRA and his features with the Odd Future goons. The track hasn't gotten any more complex in that year, but it hasn't lost its luster either. The throwaway interlude that follows it, "Fertilizer," sounds like the theme to a discarded '70s Sunday morning talk show. It's a joke he probably could've fleshed out into a full song, as Ocean's songwriting talent is perceptible even when he's joking. Frank's got melodies to go, and even when his stories lose the cohesion and clever detailing of his best writing, it still makes for pleasant listening. When Channel Orange lets you down it's the production. "Sierra Leone" isn't particularly inspired songwriting, and it indulges the most scattered, vague impulses in Ocean's style, but if it had a more interesting track to counterpoint the vocal it might work better. By contrast, the album's trio of standout tracks -- "Sweet Life," "Lost," and "Bad Religion" -- show how captivating beats elevate Frank Ocean to best-in-class status. Pharrell Williams co-wrote and co-produced the bubbling keys and bass of "Sweet Life" with Ocean. The song is really the first third of a beautiful little meditation on how money makes living well possible, but not certain. After a thematically related interlude you get the soulful pulse of "Super Rich Kids," featuring Odd Future buzz baby Earl Sweatshirt. Earl's verse is a mumbled, blurry thing, but listen to it closely and it's a brilliant bit of lyricism. Where "Sweet Life" celebrated what money brings you, "Super Rich Kids" shows the boredom, loneliness and dysfunction that can come with having the world handed to you by successful absentee parents. All this and you're still only a third of the way through the record. There's no sense in playing Rap Genius Thesaurus Bot on y'all trying to come up with adjectives for Ocean's voice. You already know he's got pipes. Like his falsetto steez? "Pilot Jones" got you covered. Like stripper anthems with historical trappings and dub step-inspired instrumentation? "Pyramids," baby, that joint is a problem. Want to hear Frank play off a superior lyricist? The Three-Stacks feature on "Pink Matter" is here for you. And "Monks" is funky enough that you shouldn't take too much of it at once. But Channel Orange has a couple songs that invite discussion of where Ocean's career is headed and what kind of artist he wants to be. For a guy who broke out based on the striking juxtaposition of his beautiful voice with the darkness of Odd Future cuts, "Crack Rock" is a particularly interesting statement. Its lyrics have narrative components, but it is mostly an abstract consideration of the plight of a crack addict. You could reduce its themes to something like "Crackheads have souls too, you know," if you wanted to be a dick about it. It's the most direct address of a societal problem that Ocean has put out to date, but don't let me oversell it as a P.S.A.-- it's also a solid piece of music. It's not as fun a track as "Lost" or "Sweet Life," and Ocean sounds sadder about his love life on "Thinkin Bout You" than he does about crack addiction here. But while he's made many drugged-out tracks, none of them have been written quite like this. And it's not the only recent reminder of the man's literary qualities. Ocean's lovely, thoughtful note to fans explaining that his first love was a man was supposedly released before the album because journalists had noticed some male pronouns in interesting places on Channel Orange. "Bad Religion" and "Forrest Gump" are the tracks in question. The former is a haunting, organ-driven descent into Ocean's struggle with himself. You should read BubbleMAMI's piece about it at RapGenius (and while you're at it, read Craig Jenkins on the dumb conclusions you shouldn't draw about Frank's sexuality). But mostly, you should listen to "Bad Religion" and "Forrest Gump" for yourself. The only man whose opinions on the matter are wholly valid is talking to you, and he's got a lot to share. But if all you take away from Channel Orange is the chance to overscrutinize these two tracks for clues to how to label Frank, you're missing a hell of a beautiful forest for just a couple of interesting trees.