Frank Ocean does not belong. His incredible vocal range means that he’ll be often looped in the falsetto-crooning contemporary R&B conglomerate with The-Dream and the Weeknd, but those artists are too concerned with production values for their own good. The corny 808’s of the former are too tied to what The-Dream thinks the people want (and why he’ll never put out a good album) and the hugely cinematic and futuristic vision of the latter mean that neither of them will ever be able to attempt something as blushingly romantic like “Thinkin About You” (although the Weeknd has come close). In contrast, the music that Frank Ocean sings over is always sparse (with the exception of the first half of centerpiece “Pyramids”), which allows his vocals and message to take center-stage. Sure, he sings about sex, drugs and money, but he’ll often drop lines that expose them as the hole-filling substances they are – and how often do you see that in R&B or hip-hop?
That being said, Channel Orange isn’t a perfect album. As with the twenty-second tracks that peppered Nostalgia, Ultra., I don’t understand their inclusion. “Start” opens the album innocuously, and at the very essence of it, is the sound of a PlayStation booting up, no doubt to instill nostalgia of the inner nerd in all of us and some ambient noises to stretch it out to 45 seconds (the Majin Buu namedrop in “Pink Matter” accomplishes the same effect without needing its own track to do so), while nothing happens in either interlude “Not Just Money” or “End” (some editions of the album end with a Tyler, the Creator verse, but the day I want a Frank Ocean album to end with a Tyler, the Creator track is the day you have permission shoot me). On the other hand, brief cover “Fertilizer” fairs better, since it bridges the gap between “Thinkin Bout You” and the “Gah!” feeling I get when I hear “I just ran out of Trojans” that sets the stage for “Sierra Leone” (which still manages to pull itself together, despite that). Oh, and John Mayer is on this. He plays guitar for about a minute on his own track. Show me a more useless big name guest feature and I’ll show you a hippocorn (a crossbreed of the hippopotamus and unicorn). Like apparently the outro of “Pyramids” is all him! So why even bother with “White?”
Elsewhere, the interpolation of “Real Love” on “Super Rich Kids” was a poor decision, since a) it was already hook-laden to begin with and b) “Super Rich Kids” prides itself on simplicity (a two-chord approach) and sparseness (the rests in between) such that adding extra length to it causes it to drag. The best part of “Pilot Jones” is the opening lines (“We once had things in common / Now the only thing we share is the refrigerator cold / Ice cold”), and while the rest of the song ain’t bad, there’s an overuse of falsetto that’s needless and emotionless. The bridge on “Monks” uses a single, high-pitched note on the piano like on Kanye West’s “Runaway,” but without any of the things that made Kanye West’s “Runaway” so great. “Pink Matter” starts well thanks to Frank Ocean’s verse (“What do you think my brain is made for / Is it just a container for the mind / This great grey matter / Sensei replied, “What is your woman? / Is she just a container for the child?” / That soft pink matter”) and features what is now one of my favorite Andre 3000 verses (“If models are made for modeling / Thick girls are made for cuddlin’ / Switch worlds and we can huddle then / Who needs another friend / I need to hold your hand / You’d need no other man / We’d flee to other lands”). The instrumental is great too, with the nice addition of an extremely thin string line and pushed forward by percussion that sounds like a chant (or maybe it is a chant, I don’t know), with a tiny bit of OutKast’s “A Bad Note” thrown in for good measure. Unfortunately, the song ends extremely clumsily, making me wish that there was a 40-second interlude between it and “Forrest Gump.”
But those things are minor kerfuffles because there’s more than enough great stuff on Channel Orange to make up for them. Psychedelic sounds swirl in and around the simple beat of “Thinkin About You” while Frank Ocean lays down hook after hook. Of particular notice, listen to how he sings the last line of the first verse, “My eyes don’t shed tears,” punctuating each word in direct contrast with the smooth phrasing of his previous lines and the immediate consonance of hard sounds afterwards, “But boy they pour when…” Then there’s the way his rhetorical “Do ya? Do ya?”’s catapult right into his falsetto launch; you can practically hear the heartbreaking ellipses, “Do you not think so far…ahead? / Cause I’ve been thinking about forever…” Earl Sweatshirt drops a typically monotonous verse on “Super Rich Kids,” but because it’s not about raping bitches and because his lyrical prowess is still intact (ie. the internal rhymes in “Brash as fuck, breaching all these aqueducts / Don’t believe us, treat us like we can’t erupt”), it’s one of his best verses to date (though not as great as the one on “Earl” – you know the one), and there’s a wonderful juxtaposition between the use of major chords and a staccato synth line (that comes in right after Earl’s verse) that belies the empty lifestyle (“Super rich kids with nothing but loose ends / Super rich kids with nothing but fake friends”) that eventually causes the narrator to kill himself. The first half of “Pyramids” might be the most immediate section of the album with the thick bassline and the constantly climbing arpeggiated synth line (not to mention every time Frank Ocean says the word “Cleopatra,” it feels like the hook of a lifetime), but the infinitely better part is the second half, where things move from the club to a more intimate setting. The arpeggiated lines we’ve heard before always climb back down, and there’s barely anything happening musically speaking for the final verse where Frank Ocean’s insecurities (“The way you say my name makes me feel like I’m that nigga, but I’m still unemployed”) and those dating a stripper are revealed and the song takes an incredibly sad turn (“You say it’s big but you take it, ride cowgirl / But your love ain’t free no more…”). Lastly, my favorite track on the album is one that no one seems to talk about – “Forrest Gump.” Sure, with it’s one of the few standard-structured songs on the set in the chorus-verse-chorus-verse format, but there’s plenty of things happening, including the interplay between the organ and the guitar or Frank Ocean’s vocals and the guitar (listen to how it fills in the rests during the hook), and plenty of added details like the whistle blowing or the sample of “RUN FORREST, RUN!” deep in the background. And the whistled coda ends a mostly sad album on a positive note.
With any other review, that’d have done it, but unfortunately, it’s basically impossible (for me, anyway) to talk about Channel Orangeand not about Frank Ocean’s “coming out” and how it revealed a large part of humanity to be comprised of assholes because homophobia is one of the worst things to exist in a post-Hitler world. If you’re the type of person to think the best in others, I suggest you scroll through some of the tweets or YouTube comments around the time of Channel Orange’s release – it’ll make you not want to have kids. I thought it was obvious, but someone’s sexual orientation shouldn’t change the way you hear their music, and on that note, it’s not even like Frank Ocean came out in the traditional sense. He just said that he had fallen in love with a man when he was 19. That could be a romantic or a platonic way (I love many of my guy friends) and he hasn’t disclosed which. And even then, all of these songs are explicitly about girls and the only one that isn’t, the penultimate “Forrest Gump” with its chorused “You’re on my mind, boy / Running on my mind, boy,” could easily be taken from the perspective of Jenny.
Whatever. The second best album of 2012. Haters can hate. Lovers have better things to do.