Chatting about Odd Future with a friend (compulsory practise in the upper echelons of music journalism) recently brought up a discussion of Frank Ocean. This person I knew described Frank’s relation to OFWGKTA as ‘that token RnB singer bloke’. The reason I am using ‘knew’ is because I’ve distanced myself from someone making such a comment: Frank Ocean is too cool (such excellent headband taste) and way too talented to be the ‘token RnB bloke’ in Odd Future.
You can see him in the video for Oldie (A song off the quite recent OF group album) reluctantly mulling around with the youthful collective, sipping a drink in the corner and generally trying to avoid the camera. But his fifty seconds of fame on said video shows that he’s pretty respected there- Tyler and Earl in particular gaze up at him with a sparkle in their eyes, and it’s not really surprising. 2011 mix tape Nostalgia Ultra has been one of the best releases out of Odd Future so far, blending woozy RnB jams and solid re-works of classic and contemporary tracks (Coldplay, MGMT and Eagles tracks are all used in their entirety), it launched to a signing on Def Jam, and to work on the Watch the Throne album.
And now Channel Orange. 17 tracks long and just short of an hour, it’s had critics drooling over the intelligent lyrics, the song writing, his voice, and generally everything. It’s also going down well commercially – within hours of release the album hit no.1 on iTunes, despite the album streaming for free. Of course Frank’s emotional sexuality-related eruption hasn’t hurt its reach, and provides some of the most interesting and emotional lyrical content in the album. Yet for all its pop appeal, the most downloaded song on iTunes (at time of writing) is the ten minute epic ‘Pyramids’; the longest song currently in the top 200. For an album to come along capturing both the commercial and critical eye is impressively rare, especially with Frank’s relation to the love them/hate them Odd Future. So what the fuck is going on here?
As the reviews have been quick to point out, it’s very hard not to like Channel Orange. An RnB/Funk/Hip-Hop/Pop hybrid of such quality that contemporary comparisons have been relatively minimum, C.O gifts us some truly fantastic tracks in both production and deliverance. “Sweet Life”, could have come straight out of a Stevie Wonder’s release, but for Ocean’s less embellished vocal style. Carried through by a fantastic west coast bass, its poignant lyrics focus on the opulence of young money and their ignorance of the world around them: “So why see the world when you got the beach”.
Strong lyrical content is a theme throughout Channel Orange. Frank seems to be a good thinker, and although he does pass over the traditional content of drugs, women, money, he doesn’t do it in the traditional way. “Super Rich Kids” looks at another side of the wealthy life, and the loneliness and ‘give a shit’ nature of it all. “Crack Rock” is sung in the persona of a drug addict and tells a grim tale: “You don’t know how little you matter until you’re all alone in the middle of Arkansas with a little rock left in that glass dick”. I’ll take your word for it Frank.
But these only stand out because the music does half the work –, the lyrics are just as affecting on the shittier tracks, but unfortunately you just don’t want to listen to them. ‘Pilot Jones’ is three minutes of boredom, which fails to really go anywhere or do anything. ‘Bad Religion’, although starting out as a promising epic, fails to really take off after building up for all of its 2:55 with OTT string production and terrible handclaps bleeding your ears off.
There are also some tracks which are a bit easy to lose in the chaos of a seventeen-track release. Ironically “Lost”, but also “Monks” falls victim to this; they take a few listens, but they’re tracks where the funk of the band behind Ocean really comes through to the limelight. Channel Orange then is not completely without its problems, but they are few and far apart. I haven’t even mentioned Andre 3000’s world-ending verse at the end of Pink Matter, which is worth a couple of quid on its own.
Falsetto, rap, and everything in between is what makes Channel Orange such an impressive listen. Nothing of this ilk since the success of Danger Mouse and Cee-Lo’s Gnarls Berkley has shown such an ability to critically merge so many styles whilst still keeping the content chartable. And much like Cee-Lo ability to snap from bluesy gospel licks to razor-sharp raps, Frank’s vocal performance is diverse and solid across the board.
So Channel Orange is a good album. Maybe not quite the 9.5 Pitchfork blessed upon it, or the ‘classic’ others are leaving at its feet, but it’s good. Frank Ocean is still a young guy, and hopefully the money and a crowd to lap it all up will only catalyze him to greater things. Expect to see this on many end-of-year lists, and expect to see Frank Ocean for many more years to come.By Rory Foster