Frank Ocean – Channel Orange
There will be an eagerness to bestow praise on Frank Ocean’s observations on the Human Condition™ primarily on the back of diminished expectations of modern RnB. Someone like Ocean could be considered breath of fresh air insofar as his music isn’t plagued with the same nauseating misogyny and narcissism as that of his contemporaries, but it says a lot more about the genre than it does about his own ability as a songwriter and a performer.
Channel Orange, like last year’s Nostalgia, Ultra is discernibly within his modus operandi, peppered with his own brand of musing and moralising. Combing through the record for personal references to his recently revealed sexuality aside, a lot of time is spent on character portraits – lovers, strippers and crack-heads; the wider world.
And he does bring a little humanity and sensitivity to the party. ‘Crack Rock’ for example is a fallen from grace addict tale – earnest and direct in the utmost. A casual groove frames the occasionally thoughtful lyric about the character no longer being invited to family functions. It’s a long way from revelatory but easier to digest on account of its nonchalance.
Ocean leaves more space in the recording this time around, with the arrangements stopping short of minimal but rarely overtaking his voice as the central presence, which works both for and against the songs. Stripped down moments like ‘Super Rich Kids’ where he contemplates the empty lives of over-privileged Bret Easton Ellis characters are like being stuck in traffic – saying next to nothing, going nowhere and taking a long time getting there. Though it’s nice that Ocean sees that said lifestyles might be somewhat repugnant, it seems excessive to applaud someone singing what everyone else already knows to a tedious, lumbering melody. The flipside of writing music that’s supposed to be significant at every turn is the height from which it falls when it turns out to be inconsequential. The working class woman talking about money in the interlude between ‘Sweet Life’ and ‘Super Rich Kids’ is a wasted opportunity for depth, regardless of the irony that can be read into either of the tracks that bookend it.
Orchestral highlight ‘Bad Religion’ is fairly effective melodramatic pop if you can get over the maudlin exterior, as Ocean laments his unrequited love to a taxi driver. ‘Thinkin Bout You’ and ‘Lost’ are pleasing in their simplicity with the occasional interesting sound thrown in, while Andre 3000 throws a likeable and understated verse into ‘Pink Matter’.
The sketchy recording quality of Nostalgia, Ulta has been cleaned-up and the music is much less jarring and disjointed. The otherwise overlong ‘Pyramids’ transitions pretty well into and out of a dance pop groove, and shows a slightly more engaging side to the music when it embraces sounds other than minimal soul and sub-Stevie Wonder electric piano noodling.
As Ocean often shoots for laid back pop supremacy (not necessarily out of character for someone who’s penned songs for Justin Bieber and Beyonce) shortcomings in his writing style quickly expose themselves. A lot of his hooks feel half baked and not nearly as memorable as they need to be to hit the mark that Channel Orange aims for, and the more meandering tracks like ‘Pilot Jones’ and ‘Sierra Leone’ spend their duration characterless and astray.
There’s no doubt of the sincerity in his vocals and the production appreciates that autotune would negate the earnest performance, but they rarely rise above serviceable. Serviceable enough that if every other ambition was on the mark it wouldn’t matter, but Channel Orange doesn’t enjoy that luxury.
He’s the kind of character with the kind of ideas for whom its easy to wish success, but aside from a few fairly functional tracks there’s a disappointing blandness to Channel Orange that’s only amplified by its assumption of its own wisdom.
What it does have going for it are occasionally well-judged backing accompaniments, an everyman poeticism that connects from time to time and Ocean’s casual charisma that loosely binds it all together. In terms of his music and decisions in his personal life no one could argue he isn’t fighting the tide to some degree or another, though that aspect will not be overlooked given that Channel Orange has already been subconsciously dubbed an important record in the minds of many. Its few virtues are clear and soon to be well-documented, but alone they don’t make it something more than it is and fighting the tide isn’t necessarily parting the sea.