Frank Ocean gets it. That’s really what it comes down to. At 24 years old, Ocean’s lyrical and musical depth far surpasses that of most of his R&B contemporaries. After joining shock-rap collective Odd Future and dropping a celebrated solo mixtape, Ocean scored front-row seats to Watch the Throne by singing on Jay-Z and Kanye West’s decadent collaborative album last year. The world took notice, creating much anticipation for Ocean’s official debut, channel ORANGE.
That anticipation skyrocketed when just this month, Ocean revealed through a courageous Tumblr post that his first love was another man. It was a huge step forward for the hip-hop/R&B community as many prominent rappers tweeted their support. While this admirable revelation should not serve to inflate our judgement of the merits of channel ORANGE, it would be impossible not to acknowledge this very personal aspect of his life, as it informs many of his lyrics on the album. On “Bad Religion,” Ocean laments the one-sided nature of his love: “This unrequited love / To me it’s nothing but a one-man cult / And cyanide in my styrofoam cup / I could never make him love me.”
It’s only fitting that the production on channel ORANGE be just as daring as the lyrics. Songs wander at a leisurely, but unsettling, pace with no obvious destination — a quality that could be construed as a drawback. But over time, the listener will find the wide open spaces on channel ORANGE compelling, leaving room for Ocean’s voice to permeate every crevice of the music. Expansive soundscapes give way to moments of focus, such as when the meandering stream-of-consciousness style of “Sierra Leone” leads into the taut jazz of “Sweet Life.”
No track encapsulates the overall spirit of the album as much as “Pyramids,” an epic powerhouse. “Pyramids” is robust and confident, clocking in at just under 10 minutes. The slap bass, reverse drums and catchy synth lines provide a funky backdrop for Ocean’s sublime melody, until the funk withers away and a dreamy, psychedelic section takes over.
“Thinkin’ Bout You” is the most conventional R&B song on the album –– a straightforward, thoughtful number that alludes to that first unrequited love as Ocean cries, “My eyes don’t shed tears, but boy, they bawl when I’m thinkin’ bout you.” As Ocean’s perfect croon soaks into the soul on “Thinkin’ Bout You,” it is impossible not to reflect on all of Ocean’s qualities. He’s an immensely talented, creative, good-looking, up-and-coming pop star, but out of all the things going for him, his greatest asset is still his voice. Honestly, those vocal chords could be the eighth wonder of the world.
Ocean’s brilliant channel ORANGE is like a swim through a vast sea of swirling currents and serene beauty. With every gorgeous vocal flourish, Ocean’s tales of isolation and lost love burrow into your being. His soothing, pitch-perfect voice is enough to elevate him to stardom, but it’s his ear for sonic beauty and mind for lyrical boldness that carry him to greatness.