Frank Ocean is 24. Youth is no limiting factor for this man. You might even be interested to know he resides in the tight-knit hip-hop collective that is OFWGKTA, along with the king of crass Tyler, The Creator. So what, you may be asking, is he doing releasing one of the most grown up, 70s-vibe worthy records of the last few years? If you've encountered him before this, most likely on his mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra. you're not at all surprised. That release recieved critical acclaim and rightly so, it was a breath of fresh air in a pop world that is killing brain cells by the millions every day. With nothing in particular to be calm about, least of all the atrocious handling of him by Def Jam, he stepped on to the scene entirely solo, exuding a serene aura that was tinged with the sadness that only life experience can generate. More than just an accomplished singer, Ocean recieves writing credits on all but 2 songs on Channel Orange, and has scaled such illustrious heights as penning songs for Bieber, John Legend, and Beyonce.
Talent abound. And a clear idea and focus for the record. Without this definition of a desired sound, or a sonic touching point that all tracks must pass through, an album can feel loose and sloppy. Channel Orange has this point, although it is hard to define, and it feels tight and secure whilst still allowing experimentation and variety within a constant theme to achieve an organic and exciting mix of sounds. The strings at the top of Thinkin Bout You give way beautifully to a strong beat with a tide-pool feeling synth backing, it sways and swells as Ocean's honey-drenched voice slips in to evening mode and caresses your ear. Sweet Life begins with a lovely piano-bar riff that drives a simple bass line that bursts in to life with the chorus, evoking images of Ocean fronting a grizzled and experienced jazz band at your favourite night spot on a Friday evening after work. Vibing out.
The entire record seems malleable, mouldable, it can be bent around whatever mood you're in. It's not one-dimensional, and you experience new emotions and find hidden jewels everytime you spin it. Ocean invites you in to his mind rather than his world, it's an odd experience. The way you'd interact with most records is through shared experiences, shared actions. You aspire to a Jay-Z record, you empathise with an Eminem song, you nod your head and agree with a Twin Shadow love plea. On Channel Orange you're encouraged to use your imagination. On Super Rich Kids Ocean details something he has observed from afar and then given the situation his own imagination, and we're invited to view it through his eyes rather than our own, 'We’ll both be high, the help don’t stare / They just walk by, they must don’t care' and Earl provides a jalting yet excellent accompaniment 'Super rich kids with nothing but loose ends / Super rich kids with nothing but fake friends'. Rather than drumming up support or empathy for the main characters it's almost as if Ocean is hoping his imaginings are true, that the blessed life is not as great as it is portrayed. Sweet Life focuses on a defined central figure, and Ocean's personality shines through as he gently builds sarcasm disguised as harmless observation, when he throws the barb 'A sweet life, live and die in the life'.
The mix of shrewd observational thought and jazzed out R&B backing creates a trippy mix, the package you're presented is much more soothing than what's inside it at times, which qualifies the malleable feel. If you're in the mood, you're encouraged to interact with the song on more than a superficial level. If you just want some cool music to play in the background of a party, you can put it on and bask in the gentle jazz. Pilot Jones is a slight, minimal beat with Ocean gently exercising his falsetto. You could put it on before bed and slowly drift off with it. In fact he is detailing a torrid relationship with a friend who is also his dealer, and the unhappy and damaging circumstance that creates. Crack Rock follows a similar line. It moves along smoothly, sounding like a ?uestlove-inspired drum-jazz piano combo, with Ocean describing a lost soul, the desperate eyes and desperate lies of a junkie, 'Your family stopped inviting you to things / Won’t let you hold their infant'.
The top track on the album must be the pulsing, living, breathing Pyramids, nearly 10 minutes of electronic brilliance that allows Ocean his most sporadic and strain of conscious thought moment on the record. It's one of those epics that great artists don't set out to create, but create in the process of allowing their mind free reign. It jumps, only a little sloppily, from ancient Egpytian Cleopatra to Ocean's modern day interpretation through the line 'Big sun coming strong through the motel blinds / Wake up to your girl for now, let's call her Cleopatra'. Thankfully the sound evolves more naturally, Ocean lays the groundwork for a pulsing synth beat to take over in the middle and then recede and give way to a slippery interlude that bursts back in to life with a drum-machine loop that allows Ocean the perfect canvas to detail the story of our modern day Cleopatra , his less than illustrious mate for the night, 'Pimping in my convos / Bubbles in my champagne / Let it be some jazz playing' gives way to 'But I'm still unemployed / You say it's big but you take it / Ride cowgirl / But your love ain't free no more', over the course of the 10 minutes we see Ocean slowly descending back in to reality until the final line slaps him in the face. It's a wonderful track.
Much has been made of his letter, entitled, Thank You's, his coming out, explaining that his first love was at the age of 19 and involved another man. On Forrest Gump, a nice simple hip hop beat, he sweetly sings 'Forrest Gump/You run my mind, boy/ Running ’round my mind, boy'. I don't know how groundbreaking his admission is, but it is admirable and adds to the aura that Frank Ocean seems to have around him. It qualifies this image of him as a grown man, a suit wearing style fiend who is the pinnacle of cool - he doesn't portray arrogance or ignorance, it's a steady and warranted confidence.
9/10. I didn't even get to tell you about my favourite track Pink Matter. The album is just that good.
Best Tracks: Pyramids, Pink Matter, Thinkin Bout You, Super Rich Kids