Frank Ocean – Channel Orange
FOR this month…
IN THIS PHOTO: Frank Ocean/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
I am featuring standout albums from black artists. Frank Ocean has just put out a new song, DHL, and it seems like there are plans for more material very soon. In terms of albums that connect instantly and continue to swim in your head for months after you have played it, Channel Orange is right up there with the very best. His 2011 mixtape, Nostalgia, Ultra, gained a lot of positive feedback, but Channel Orange took him to new heights. After that mixtape went out, Ocean collaborated with Malay – one of several producers on Channel Orange -, at EastWest Studios out in Hollywood. Whereas his mixtape was more about samples and something more borrowed, Ocean decided to work more closely with sound and create a different sound on his debut album. A lot of Rap and Hip-Hop artists start out by producing mixtapes and then sort of move in the direction of an album. Whilst a lot of Hip-Hop albums from his peers at the time were quite political, aggressive and familiar, Ocean crafted an album that was as accessible as it was revelatory. There is barely anything conventional about Channel Orange. From its fusions of variegated genres and use of segue tracks, it is a heady masterpiece. It is the scope of sounds that truly blows the mind. A lot of artists would use samples to create the same affect and find that they struggled to get clearance or access; maybe it would be a hard task getting the songs to sound how they should.
There are big themes addressed on Channel Orange, but I think it is the tales and tones of unrequited love and passion that hit hardest. Ocean employs dark characters and switches voices; his voice is free-form flow and there are a few guests that pop up to add new angles and voices to the record. It is amazing to think of Channel Orange, as it is so confident and assured. Ocean had experience before heading into the studio, yet Channel Orange sounds like it was from the mind of a decades-experienced musicians. One thing you cannot accuse Frank Ocean of is lacking in comfort and luxury whilst recording the album. Not only did he work in various expensive studious; he also had a maid at a Beverley Hills mansion. It is just as well budget was not a big constraint as, to get the sound right and perfect the songs, Ocean spent months getting the vocals right. The songs do sound free and loose but, in actuality, there was a lot of honing and experimentation. I guess that is the sign of a great album: one that appears pretty natural, but has a lot of work, D.N.A. and drafts under the skin. Producers such as Malay were working behind the scenes and helping bring Channel Orange together. Ocean was involved at every stage and displayed a hugely impressive work ethic. Recording equipment from the 1960s was used in the studio; Ocean and Malay would put up old film posters and listen to albums by Stevie Wonder and Pink Floyd to set a mood and feel.
It is wonderful imagining the scenes and seeing Ocean immerse himself in this unique world, conducive to fantastic results. Ocean, as I said, switched from using samples to relying on instrumentation this time around. Listen to Channel Orange and one is stunned by the production sound, effects and depth of sound. Alongside these songs of unrequited love, sex and longing, we get this incredibly rich and nuanced set of compositions. Other subjects such as class and drug dependency are explored through Channel Orange. It is hard to pick highlights, but Thinkin Bout You comes to mind. That clash of the personal and more society-focused makes Channel Orange and album that has layers and so many stories to tell. Everyone can get something from the album. Some have compared Ocean’s vocals, narrative and inflections to Prince. It is clear that Ocean drew from other artists and was moved by the icons of the past. Channel Orange is a deeply personal album, and, because of that, the reviews were impassioned. Look at the reviews and they are all wildly positive. It is clear the 2012 album struck a chord with many; it was a huge arrival and one that is still vibrating and resonating. In this review, AllMusic were keen to examine a wonderful album:
“As easy as it is to listen to Ocean's voice in long stretches -- he's casually expressive -- the number of deep ruminations over slow tempos requires some patience. Even the lone song that could be termed a banger is a ten-minute suite that takes 90 seconds to get on the floor; the song with the widest and most creative scope as well, "Pyramid" shifts from "my black Queen Cleopatra" and ancient Egypt (over swift synth funk) to "Your love ain't free no more" and a strip club (over booming, low-profile slickness).
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
The lighter moments, such as the loose and bright "Sweet Life" and the relatively exuberant "Monks," both of which would be standouts on any N.E.R.D. album, offer more than bright coating, dealing in surrealism and sharp observations that are equally penetrating. On the other end, the most personal song is "Bad Religion," a phenomenal brokenhearted ballad consisting of organ, piano, strings, and handclaps: "This unrequited love/To me it's nothing but a one-man cult/And cyanide in my Styrofoam cup." Everything that falls between, counting the rumbling drug dependency tale "Crack Rock," the snapping/swooning "Pilot Jones," and the longing falsetto shuffle "Thinkin Bout You," is vivid and worthy of complete immersion.
I think Channel Orange is one of the best albums of this decade – it would crack my top-ten list -, and you can listen to it at any time and get something new from it. Ocean is working on new material it seems; one wonders whether he will be able to equal the brilliance of Channel Orange! If you have not grabbed Channel Orange on vinyl, then make sure you rectify that. I want to bring in another review – this one is from The Telegraph:
“At times, Ocean’s dense, gorgeous debut evokes the musical bravura of prime Stevie Wonder, Prince and Kanye West, allied to the mad adventurousness of eccentrics like Björk or André 3000. The real miracle of the album, and a sign that Ocean is a talent for our times, is that he can embark on something as flamboyant as Pyramids – a 10-minute, tempo-shifting, minor-chord narrative of Egyptian queens and Las Vegas strippers, marrying Tangerine Dream sequencers and a jazzy John Mayer guitar solo to a rapturous slow jam – and make it all seem to make sense.
Channel Orange is as dazzling as it is baffling, rarely staying still long enough to get a grip on. This may be a drawback when it comes to scoring big hit singles, with only one track, the chugging Lost, really conforming to the kind of straightforward song construction favoured by radio. Yet, there has been a sea-change in mainstream pop of late, as the popularity of guitar rock has waned and the sound of blips and beats have become utterly dominant in the top 40”.
I think Channel Orange will go down as one of the most influential albums of the decade. Not only are the compositions so luscious, eclectic and memorable; Ocean’s lyrics are simply incredible! A lot of his contemporaries are a bit lazy and predictable when it comes to love and turning their desires and frustrations into songs. Ocean is almost like a poet in the way he talks about his experiences. In this feature from HUFFPOST, they focus on the strength of the lyrics:
“This is Frank Ocean’s strength: words. Without seeming preachy, overbearing, or the least bit cliché, Channel Orange pulls you in like a page-turning novel. At times, he’s direct like in “Sweet Life” as he sings “Why see the world when you’ve got the beach.” In other cases, he plays with metaphors and words like on “Crack Rock” where he confesses, “You don’t know how little you matter until you’re all alone / In the middle of Arkansas, with a little rock left in that glass dick.” It’s in this vein that there’s something truly special about Frank Ocean. It’s impossible not to sympathize with him.
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
Like fellow melancholy crooner, The Weeknd, Frank Ocean’s vocals emphasize tone over range. Unlike some of his noted influences (Stevie Wonder and Mary J Blige), there are no gospel solos reminiscent of Whitney Houston or Boyz II Men. In turn, this places the emphasis on his lyrics. After asking a taxi driver “to be his shrink” on “Bad Religion,” he sings, “This unrequited love / To me it’s nothing but a one-man cult / And cyanide in my tyrofoam cup / I can never make him love” in a falsetto voice that suggests his instability. Then, on “Pilot Jones,” his sultry and soulful tone is accented by a simple snap rhythm that recalls the sultriness of D’Angelo”.
Frank Ocean released Blonde in 2016 and, with so much expectation after Channel Orange’s success, impressed critics and fans. Perhaps looser than its predecessor, Blonde is another remarkable album from one of modern music’s most extraordinary artists. One can only wonder what a third album might contain and when we might see that. As debut albums go, Channel Orange is not only one of the finest of this decade, but it is one of the best of all-time. Seven years after its release, I still dip in and out of Channel Orange and amazed at the endless appeal of the album. I did not only want to feature political albums from black artists for Vinyl Corner this month. Instead, I wanted to cover a range of genres and time periods. Channel Orange is an album you need in your life, because it is…