When I first heard singer Frank Ocean, I wasn’t immediately impressed. He could carry a note and I thought the songs he did within the Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All collective were decent, but not too spectacular. There was a bit more hype than substances in my opinion, and I thought okay, maybe one day his music will be able to match up with the hype. In other words, give me something that shows incredible everything so it will leave me with nothing more to way but “wow”. channel ORANGE (Def Jam) is an entry into a proper direction, and I have much to say.
For one, what I liked about Ocean’s work in the past is his laid back delivery. Sometimes he came off like a kid raised on hip-hop but loved to sing, or the stoner kid hipsters pushed to the side but others embraced because he was a storyteller, regardless of how strong or ridiculous his stories were. He didn’t speak or sing with any care about who people want him to be or how they want to hear him, he sings from the heart and the soul. Yet it was just that, that guy who loved soul music but did it with a slight hip-hop sensibility that partially came from the music he found himself in. Within the Odd Future camp, he did so primarily with the minimalism production style that I truly love. The minimalism may be partially due to the group not wanting to pay for samples, so by being sparse, they’re avoiding lawsuits. The end result is a very dry and mundane sound, but that sound cuts the crap and keeps listeners on what is being said. I love that, and anyone who loves that edge of Ocean’s work will love channel ORANGE, but the album is more than just OFWGKTA rehash. It’s much bigger.
What we are entering is Ocean’s world, mentality, and sensibility, and what you’re hear is incredibly musicality ranging from a few songs with a slight rock/pop edge, but not overly so. Then you may catch a bit of blues influences, which is surprising but more than welcome. His lyrics are simple, everyday tales that you might share with friends at the park, or with your significant other on your patio or park bench. It’s a casual conversation that comes off like one part personal diary, one part confessional, and that comes through as the mood of the album actually gets spiritual, at least musically. One thing some critics have said about the current state of R&B is that it lacks soul, which means it sounds nothing like the soul music from the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s that people continue to cherish. By taking things back to church with the sound of a Hammond B-3 organ, chants, or gospel choirs, it seems like he realizes that as an artist, you should never limit yourself to how others want to limit you. Ocean is a free man looking at a soundscape that should also be free, and by bringing his music to a church setting, he essentially is saying “this is where it originated, this is where it should be, but it doesn’t have to stay here either. Let it roam, as I will.”
Ocean does this by singing out of the comfort zone fans have been accustomed to, reaching the kind of falsetto that Pharrell Williams often mocks in his phony Curtis Mayfield style, for some it may measure up to the words of D’Angelo and Maxwell. There are a few tracks where I was reminded of the vocal abilities of New Edition/Bell Biv DeVoe vocalist Ricky Bell, who is generally underrated in the shadow of Bobby Brown and Ralph Tresvant but someone who deserves a lot of accolades. The stories he tells are as convincing and as believable as the works of Erykah Badu, Res, and Amy Winehouse. He’s not saying he’s rich (yet), but it wouldn’t hurt if he had some extra to play with. What he has is compassion, but he also isn’t afraid to show a common human side that a lot of “R&B” tends to keep away from listeners because you’re supposed to leave that shit at home when you’re in the club. channel ORANGE isn’t a club album. Is Ocean trying to make a statement with his music, perhaps the equivalent of Common saying “but Imma take her back/hopin’ that the shit stop/cause who I’m talkin bout y’all is hip-hop”? In his case, he’s not so much redefining soul music by any means, but merely removing the dusty blanket to show what has been neglected. When you hear Andre 3000 do his verses and touches on how models may be beautiful but that a big woman is meant for cuddling, you know you can laugh, smile, and cry out “truth”. For Ocean, this is the first chapter of what will hopefully become an illustrious book of output for him. I turned from someone who felt he was limited by what he had done before, to someone who could prove himself to be one of this generation’s greatest artists. Without the hype, this is a great album and one of the best of 2012.