Beyond The Hype: Is Frank Ocean's "Channel Orange" Really That Good?
I waited to write this piece on Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange album on purpose. I didn’t want it to get swept up amidst the hurricane of false praise that waded in the blinding fog of Ocean’s proclamation that his first love was of the same sex variety. Even if one did thoroughly enjoy the 24-year-old’s debut, it is difficult to overlook the elephant in the room while crafting a thorough review. If you’re a reader, you dove in to each review to see what an album by a bi-sexual man just entering the peak of his career would sound like. For reader and writer, it was less about the music and more about the novelty. But now that some time has passed since the release of Channel Orange, we can look at this album for what it’s supposed to be judged on, the music.
Admittedly, I didn’t know what to expect as I assumed that Ocean’s hype train was no longer racing at Delorean-like speeds. Actually, what I am admitting is that I’m a bit ashamed of myself for losing interest in Ocean because of the lack of material hitting the internet. In a day and age where we are bombarded with an excess of music, I’ve been a detractor of the multiple songs released on a daily basis. Subconsciously, I still needed to hear or see something or my interest would go away.
Sorry, Frank. Getting wrapped up in the concept of MP3’s getting sprayed in my direction like Scarface fending off his demise actually penalized you indirectly. Then the whole “Frank Ocean has come out the closet” issue cropped up and my eyebrows raised. But it still didn’t heighten my expectations for his debut project. It wouldn’t matter to me if Ocean said his parents were aliens if the music wasn’t up to par. But then I listened to Channel Orange and I ran it back and listened again. I played it in my car and in my headphones. I dissected every instrument, vocal and lyric. I set it aside for a few days and came back to it to see if I, too, was caught up in the hype. No. It was far better than I anticipated and one of the best R&B albums I have heard in a long, long time.
Is Channel Orange that good? Yes. Yes it is.
Let’s be clear, I’m not going to act like his swapping of pronouns didn’t happen and have no bearing on the album. It did happen. However, his sexuality isn’t the crutch for this album to stand up on. It’s the strength of his vocal arrangements, production and the way he tackles his subjects that pushes this album into the room with other ”classic” albums that have withstood the test of time.
As a journalist who has been covering music for a decade, I’ve been very critical of the R&B genre and how it has turned into diet-hip-hop over the years. Many of today’s singers long to be rappers so bad that they dress, walk, talk and act the damn part without calling themselves rappers. I blame Robert Sylvester Kelly for this genre of R&B music as the “R.” influenced a whole generation of young’uns to create some really, really, basic music. Not to mention the suggestiveness of it is gone. Lost are the metaphors and in place is a straightforwardness that declines the concept of subtle sex talk. Before it was dating, foreplay, sex and love. Today it’s just f*cking. With that being said, I’ve struggled to find too many creative singers who are artistically brilliant and don’t just try to sing the panties off of the opposite sex. Artists like Miguel have managed to do more than create bone music and even his major label debut was a “safe” move to remain accessible to the masses (listen to his “Mischief” mixtape first for proof). We lack a D’Angelo and Erykah Badu presence that completely shifts how we digest our music. In an era of self-proclaimed nerds and weirdos, the irony is that if everyone is calling themselves different, then are they truly different? Ocean doesn’t traverse that tightrope, he just is what he is and that’s more unique than what a vast majority of these entertainers are doing today.
Coming off of his impressive “nostalgia/ultra” mixtape, I was sure that we had seen the best of Frank Ocean and a full length album would be diluted with reaches for mainstream accessibility. I figured the subject matter would be watered down and Def Jam wouldn’t take a risk on Ocean creating an album while not being mindful of his perceived audience. Boy, was I wrong.
Channel Orange is devoid of trivial nuances of panty dropping sex talk. It’s also not a faux clinically depressed heartbreak album. Instead, Ocean navigates through a number of topics that range from prostitution and drugs to being a spoiled brat and his struggles with his own sexuality. Ocean is a storyteller and his 24-year-old body is nothing more than a casing for a singer who came from an era of other great storytellers like Prince and Stevie Wonder. The Prince comparison is unique because this is quite similar to what I believe Prince would have concocted should he have been 24-years-old in 2012. Blasphemy you say? Allow me to explain.