July 13, 2012 10 comments
Under the veil of distant laughter and muffled conversation, the awakened hiss of a television enters the frame of sound. The warped tones of a Playstation One startup screen engulfs the white noise as the beginning interactions between player and game take place. And then, silence. Right before royal strings introduce a melody that some of us have, long already, been introduced to. There’s probably much to be read into in these early moments. But one thing that remains striking is that, within the relative ambiguity of the introduction to Frank Ocean’s major label debut album, Channel Orange, there’s an undercurrent of inclusive familiarity. It’s something that Ocean doesn’t spell out in black and white, yet neither is the entirety of the album’s fragmented progression. It’s a broken narrative more focused on the theme than the details.
Last years Nostalgia, Ultra was a study in taking what already existed — whether that be ideas, lyrics, or previously recorded material — and giving it the distinct personality of Frank himself. Orange has the feel of an album that, in its own odd way, has a story to display through common motifs. “Super Rich Kids” and “Sweet Life” with their sympathetic, and often sarcastic, take on the wasteful disposition of privileged youth. “Crack Rock” and “Lost” with their stories of “broken homes” eventuating from the use and abuse of hard drugs. It’s easy to call the takes on this subject matter “overarching”, but the arch doesn’t always complete itself. Sometimes Ocean will end a thought mid-sentence (“Pilot Jones”), sometimes he’ll drag it out until it means more than it probably should (“Pyramids”), but he never seems out of control.
Much of this trusting sense of direction is solely contingent upon Frank’s vocals. I’d be lying if I were to say he belongs in the higher echelon of R&B crooners out today. His elocution can get nasally when approaching his upper register and, while his falsetto is top notch, rarely is it explored to the point that I could surmise that he has any reasonable confidence in it. Which is a shame. All that aside, the guy can flat out emote. Not once did I feel like he sounded outside of the context of a track, which is difficult to do on an album so varied in its production. “Sierra Leone” floats on airy guitar and careening synth lines, all while Frank docilely coo’s parallels between young life in a war torn African republic forced to grow into responsibility, and young American life senselessly, and all too regularly, birthing responsibility themselves. It’s a tightrope walk that could easily be botched with amateurish delivery, but because Ocean’s vocals and harmony cradle the message so lightly, the focus never raises above the topic.
This comes to full fruition on the album’s behemoth of a centerpiece, “Pyramids”. What begins as a slick, modernized retrospective on history’s most polarizing Hellenistic Pharaoh — ripe with imagery of bass rattled chandeliers and a metaphoric call for “cheetahs” (historically, Cleopatra’s pets, but contextually here, a high-class escorts “clients”) to be loosed — slowly crawls to strip club tempo and paints a much more personal picture. Most certainly, credit should be given to the songwriting in this case, but in no way is a theme this prodigious pulled off by simply reciting lyrics in tune. There’s an unconventional skill to the way that Ocean phrases his lyrical cadences within the melody. Alliterating just enough to weave certain vowels through various caverns of sinewy instrumentation that may go unnoticed on the first listen. Or the second. OR THE TENTH! But, it’s there, and when he hits the note, it hits you in turn.
That sonic ambivalence opens up the range of options for the albums choices in collaborators. “Super Rich Kids'” silkily restrained beat and wise interpolation of Mary J. Blige’s “Real Love” certainly lends itself to a rap feature, but the inclusion of Earl Sweatshirt’s jarringly labyrinthine and assonant verse shows a firm conceptual purpose, rather than a cheap Odd Future shoutout. And, speaking of features, is there any beat that Andre 3000 can’t kill? “Pink Matter” is a track that gorgeously ebbs and flows on spacious keyboard and expressive guitar (also contributed by Mr. 3-Stacks). But, amidst beautifully delivered lyrics by Ocean about the correlation between the cellular make up of the brain’s “gray matter” vs. its ability to breed ultimate and ethereal pleasure (not to mention everyone’s favorite Dragon Ball Z villain), Andre proceeds to sum up the entire structure of the track with one incredibly succinct (and supremely dope) 16 bars. And does so while barely breaking a lyrical sweat. Even John Mayer’s electric guitar rendition of the bridge to Frank’s lone track on OF’s compilation from earlier this year, “White”, is a welcome respite that only exists to help progress the disjointed continuity.
Said continuity is handled via short interludes and half-realized movements. The dazed, static-y feel of midnight channel-surfing comes into play thanks to short snippets of ambiguous dialogue that vaguely touch on relevant subjects of the songs they’re connected to. So, while one can pick out a muddled conversation piece from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas on “Lost”, or the battle speech from 1985 martial arts musical The Last Dragon settled into the instrumental bridge in “Pink Matter”, they never seem like meaningless nuggets of pop culture. To call Channel Orange a concept album may be reaching, but with repeated plays, rather than losing purpose, these diversions gain perspective within the relative ambiance.
Of course, while some moments wade in the fleeting atmosphere of the album, others hit you like a thousand-pound revelatory crisis. “Bad Religion” being part of that collide. With the backdrop of a late night cab ride, Ocean presents dueling metaphors questioning God and sexuality alike — the phrase “I could never make him love me” takes multiple meaning simply by capitalizing the “h” in “him” — to a more than judgmental taxi driver. The execution is flawless. But, beyond that, swelling strings and triumphantly marching drums elevate the emotion of this song to, what may be, the best track of 2012. The other side to this coin is the deceptively simple “Forrest Gump”. While drawing its framework from the, very literal, point-of-view analogy of the actual movie, and also making reference to, what we can now determine was, his first love, Ocean hits a chord that is unique only to him. For all the talk about his personal life recently, nothing speaks louder to the intrusive chatter than the harmonious whistle that carries the end of this track to the album’s finale.
Channel Orange isn’t a perfect album. I don’t know what is, and I don’t believe anyone on earth truly does either. But, for what it tries to accomplish by telling stories and allegories through the wide-scoped, highly-critical, always fair, and sometimes emotionally damaged eyes of Frank Ocean, it totally nails it. Yes, the album is framed in a disconnected manner, making it difficult to read between crucial lines of context and cull from it what isn’t actually there, but that isn’t completely Frank’s to control. Through various scenarios and characters, Frank is, very much, the main theme of the album. Isn’t it possible that we, the listener, could serve as the details? I’d think so.