Hype can be a terrible thing. I try to avoid listening to anyone (outside of my trusted circle of friends with good taste in music) who talks about the next big thing or says a certain album is the best ever. Perhaps I’m defeating my purpose as a writer, here. OK-I will say that there are a couple of sites and music writers that I also trust.
Nevertheless, even before singer/songwriter Frank Ocean’s sexuality became a big issue, there was a lot of hype surrounding his official debut album, Channel Orange. It started last year, when the song “Novacane,” from the mixtape Nostalgia: Ultra, became an unexpected R&B hit. The artist had already gained some renown as a songwriter, and additional notoriety as an affiliate of hip-hop’s modern-day Wu-Tang, Odd Future. A deal with Def Jam, appearances on Jay-Z and Kanye’s Watch The Throne—all led up to a deafening roar of pre-release buzz that probably makes it impossible for a lot of people to listen and judge the music strictly on its merit.
Upon purchasing the album, I wasn’t sure whether it would be the best album I’ve heard all year or it would be a huge disappointment. Truth is, it’s neither. Channel Orange is a damn solid work, and deceptively ambitious. There’s not much here that I think would be a great fit on either Top 40 or mainstream R&B radio. An AllMusic review I read of the album during my first listen suggested that the closest parallel to Ocean might be space-soul artist Bilal, and while Frank doesn’t have Bilal’s vocal elasticity, there is definitely a kinship on the lyrical and musical tip.
One thing that Channel Orange definitely made me think about was the relationship between a song and the person who sings the song. There are plenty of singers out there who don’t write their own material. That’s not a criticism at all. However, the key to becoming a great artist when recording others’ material is being able to invest in the songs you’re given. After all, music (to most) is something you create an emotional attachment to. It would stand to reason that, as a vocalist, you’d be able to give your own songs more depth. While Ocean’s not the best singer in the world (his voice does occasionally veer over to whiny Chris Brown/Justin Bieber territory,) the man is a very gifted songwriter, and his songs obviously come from a very personal place. That feeling, that personal attachment, is what lifts Channel Orange over most other current albums in its class.
The song everyone will immediately gravitate towards due to the brouhaha over Ocean’s sexuality is called “Bad Religion,” and it won’t disappoint. Lyrics aside, Ocean sounds phenomenally wounded as he retells his story of love lost to a taxi driver. Not many songs can earn the designation of being “heartbreaking,” but this is easily one of the most moving songs I’ve heard in quite some time—and I’d feel that way no matter what the sex of the person it was directed to was. However, it’s just one good song on an album that’s actually backloaded with the best material.
The Andre 3000 collaboration, “Pink Matter,” is another winner. I’m grateful that Andre seems to choose his collaborations wisely (Ke$ha excepted—I hope he got paid a lot for that) and he and Frank have quite good chemistry. Andre’s obviously been taking some guitar lessons, too. “Sweet Life,” possibly the most buoyant song on an album that’s admittedly a bit of a downer, features bright production that confirms Pharrell’s recent hot streak (see: Scissor Sisters and Adam Lambert.) “Forrest Gump” and the “Bennie And The Jets”-esque “Super Rich Kids” are among the album’s other winners. Both songs exhibit Ocean’s ability to write lyrics with almost cinematic detail. The man is nice with his pen.
As far as first (official) albums go, Channel Orange might be 2012’s best debut. It’s not perfect (who in the hell decided skits needed to go on an album in 2012?) but it reveals promise. Stylistically, it blurs lines in a way that all of my favorites do—it’s a little pop, a little R&B, a little hip-hop, a lot unclassifiable. This guy’s a talent that is worth watching, for sure. I think Frank might have an “A+” album in his future, but for right now, a B+ ain’t so bad.