“With a collection of memories sung with painful honesty, Frank Ocean is certainly not your typical r’n'b singer…”
Frank Ocean | Channel Orange
Despite last year’s release of the mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra, even less than one month ago Frank Ocean would have slipped (relatively) under the radar, having had only gradual songwriting success for artists such as John Legend and Brandy. Now, his time has come, and not just because of his first major studio album Channel Orange, but perhaps because he has decided to announce his bisexuality on the eve of it’s release, something which has now ensured he is the most talked about man in r’n'b. But, with the spotlight shining brightly on him, will Channel Orange see him seize his moment?
The album begins strongly, with Frank’s velvety vocals in first single ‘Thinkin’ of You’ – a song which has already created a buzz having been available online since 2011 – finely setting the precedent of what’s to come with soulful vocals placed over a slow, spacey beat, resulting in an incredibly honest account of relationship insecurities to create one of the standout tracks of the album. ‘Fertilizer’ – which has something of a radio jingle about it – nicely bridges the gap to continue with the hazy melodies of ‘Sierra Leone’, and as the album progresses, money becomes an apparent theme. Third single ‘Sweet Life’ (co-produced by Pharrell) is a jazz-lounge track depicting sun drenched landscapes with lyrics of “So why see the world, when you got the beach?”. After a thematically related interlude of ‘Not Just Money’, the album then leads somewhat contrastingly to a more pessimistic view of money’s harsher qualities: absentee parents are present in ‘Super Rich Kids’ (ft. Earl Sweatshirt), which happens to feature piano chords strikingly similar to that of Elton John’s ‘Benny and the Jets’.
The mesmerising centrepiece of Channel Orange is lies in the single ‘Pyramids’ which, without a doubt, is a truly unique moment; giving us the longest track of just under ten minutes with an initial uptempo beat woven within elements of synth-funk. The story begins with Cleopatra’s betrayal which at first seems to be inconsistent to the more personal tales of Frank’s own experiences, however as the track flawlessly merges into it’s second half, Frank’s storytelling re-emerges to the present day – Cleopatra in fact being a modern day stripper working at a club called ‘The Pyramid’.
From here momentum really builds with ‘Bad Religion’ and ‘Pink Matter’ (ft Andre 3000). The former featuring the backdrop of Church organs placed behind the vulnerable yet confessional lyrics of bearing a disguise – something which will undoubtedly be linked to Frank’s recent announcement. Against a soft orchestral background, the latter showcases the height of Frank’s impassioned voice continuing his inner battle, discussing how pleasure with a woman consumes him like a drug rather than being something of importance; “Sensei replied, what is your woman, is she just a container for the child?”.
The finale track of ‘Forrest Gump’ likens a crush to the titular character of the film, and as a simple light-hearted melodic track it doesn’t strike as the ultimate finale of the album feels like it should. However, with lyrics of “You run my mind boy, runnin’ on my mind boy” it is assumed that previous inner turmoil might be starting to fade, and as the song draws to a close it is clear that the final lyrics of “this is love, I know it’s true, I won’t forget you” are highly symbolic and perhaps an overall illustration of self-acceptance.
Musically, Channel Orange stays largely within the comfort zone of placing the traditional sounds of soulful r’n'b over largely modernised hooks and beats. It is the lyrics and tales that are told within this album that should be praised. Take a step back and such a unique and almost baffling mix of stories shouldn’t work together, however we are not listening to the ‘norm’ of r’n'b culture of clubs and drinking; instead we have been given raw emotion of how memories of life’s highly influential moments can be blissful yet at times cause torturous pain, and Channel Orange thus works, because ultimately, this is something we can all relate to.