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Top 50 Albums of 2012: 2nd and 1st

2. Frank Ocean - Channel Orange (Frank Ocean – channel ORANGE)

The first I heard of this record was when Twitter exploded one night in July. Channel Orange became the top trending topic for more than a few hours, which generally means something serious is going on. Further investigation on my part revealed it was an album by Frank Ocean, who's mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra never had me engrossed. May as well give it a go though, everyone was gushing about it.  With good reason..

At the time I was in a job where I sat in a car for eight hours a day. It was a tedious nightmare, made worse by my lack of sleep at the time. I was using that eight hours a day to consume a huge amount of new music, so much so that I'd worn myself out. I'd tired of it, and was spending my days listening to horrid radio programming and dreaming of ways to permanently silence radio marketing. So I popped in Frank Ocean. First reaction? Visualise that moment when, after a hard weeks work, whatever it is you do, you finally, on Friday afternoon, get to sit down on the couch, with a beer, and turn off. When Thinkin Bout You started playing, I experienced that ten-fold. 

It's not just that it is such a refreshing change from the pop quagmire today's artist seem intent on prolonging. It's not even THAT different from a multitude of R&B releases from the past few years. It just stood out as the most complex set of songs I'd heard in a long time. A record that had been expertly composed. Each song felt new and exciting, yet remained loyal to this indefinable Ocean sound. 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. The variety doesn't make for a sloppy listen, Ocean ties it all together away from our consciousness. 

The standout track, of the album and the year, is Pyramids. My description of it from my original review still feels right, so I shall cut and paste it.  

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.

I'm not surprised to see Channel Orange on many 'overrated' lists. The hype surrounding it was incredible. What I will say, and something I have observed with said hype, is that it grew from the day the album was released. Before July, there weren't many people talking about Frank Ocean. SPIN did a piece on him, and he refused to be interviewed by them because they wouldn't put him on the cover. Instead, Garbage led that issue. Given their chance again, do you really think they'd make the same decision? The hype was justified because this is a brilliant record. 10/10. Thank you Frank.

1. Kendrick Lamar - good kid, m.A.A.d city (Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d city)

Lamar is a curious fellow. He resides within the Black Hippy movement formed in 2009 in California, a movement that is made up of even more curious fellows. A movement generally has a centralised sound, a touching point that each artist can refer to if they feel they are drifting off track. Kendrick Lamar stands out from his contemporaries, starkly. He employs this spacey, melodic delivery, that in a second can be replaced with a growl of aggression and a quickening of pace. It allows him to talk tough, so to speak, without inducing laughter. For example, imagine The-Dream writing an aggressive gang-focused record. Yeah.

It means that Lamar is a master of manipulation. It also means good kid, m.A.A.d city is the best album of 2012, and a rap record of the absolute highest quality.

good kid, m.A.A.d city feels like a day in Lamar's life, but not just a standard tuesday or an exciting friday. It feels like THE day in his life, the one we all have that is filled with events we thought we could control but we can’t, prompting introspection and re-evaluation of goals and life paths. The day where a certain chain of events stimulates a focused train of thought that then entwines itself with everything you do. This day houses the pivotal moment we’ve all been hit by, out of the blue. You stop and take notice. You observe and comment on rather than coasting through with no intellectual deliberation.

It’s a flawed record, no doubt about that. Viewed as a stand-alone project, if you were to encounter each track individually, I think you might lump it in with every other nearly there rap record, that has 4 or 5 really good songs, 1 or 2 passable songs, and the rest is filler. But when approached as a project it hits you in a complete way.

Maybe it is the interludes with his parents. His father’s unexpected and poignant life lesson. His mother’s entirely relatable progression from annoyed and frustrated mum to slightly more concerned to almost despairing. The humourous narrative that these two play at through the first two encounters with them that makes them instantly accessible as real human beings rather than made up fantasy characters.

Maybe it is Kendricks brutal honesty, his ability to be completely caught up in the moment of something but to provide such a depth in his commentary that each minute in his life feels like 10 minutes of music and dissection. At times he draws you in and takes you with him. The Art of Peer Pressure is a simple narrative, a first person account of an action-packed activity. The complexity lies within Lamar's ability to transport you right in to that car with him, sitting next to him. Standing behind him as he participates in a robbery. You can feel his sweat as the police pull in behind them.

There are times when he expresses his fears and concerns in such a way it is no stretch of imagination to put yourself firmly in his shoes, experience his paranoia and his prevailing attitudes towards himself and his surroundings. Sing About Me, I'm Dying Of Thirst is a brilliant strain of conscious thought in which Lamar walks us through his fears of being a nobody, not making it out of the ghetto, the struggles of people living in desperation, the consuming fear of death, and trying to deal with the loss of family members.

These moments of insight are punctuated by more contemporary, mainstream hip hop moments. Backseat Freestyle see's Lamar on his punchline game, 'I pray my dick get big as the Eiffel Tower /
So I can fuck the world for 72 hours'. m.A.A.d city allows him to stretch his legs over some traditional Southern production from Sounwave and THC, and Poetic Justice has him trading verses with Drake, who promptly copies his flow and hops back on his misogynistic crusade. His gift for hooks keep the album flowing beautifully through these moments. Whilst they aren't contributing directly to the narrative, they provide momentary relief, you are able to relax and be entertained.

Real is the best track. You feel as though you've woken up with Lamar and shadowed him as he experiences the most important day of his life. By the time Real begins, he is lost, his location is unknown, his mind is blown and he has reached a point where he sits down and starts turning things over in his mind.

'But what love got to do with it when I don't love myself
To the point I should hate everything I do love
Should I hate living my life inside the club
Should I hate her for watching me for that reason
Should I hate him for telling me that I'm season
Should I hate them for telling me ball out
Should I hate street credibility I'm talkin' about
Hatin' all money, power, respect in my will
Or hating the fact none of that shit make me real'

We then hear the voices of his two parents, both sobered by worry, delivering their own pearls of wisdom. His father tells him in order to be real he needs god, responsibility, and he needs to take care of his family. His mother's words induce goose bumps. She sounds despairing, worried and scared like any mother would. She pleads with him to come back, that there is positives in his story, that he is real if he returns. 

You find yourself hoping Lamar finds his way back to his parents, you hope he is unharmed and unhurt. His subtle classic reveals itself to you, how deeply you've been drawn in to this snapshot of his life. Absolutely amazing.

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