Thursday 12 July 2012

Frank Ocean - Channel Orange

The release of 'Channel Orange', Ocean's major label debut, has been overshadowed by his recent sexual revelations. Perhaps this is why he's released the album early on his website, pulling focus back on to the music. Sure, (openly) gay/bisexual hip-hop artists may be rare, but it's the music that's most important.

Ocean has never been one to shy away from controversy.  After a fallout with label Def Jam, previous mixtape 'Nostalgia, Ultra' was released anyway on Ocean's website as a download in February 2011, though due to its liberal use of sampling the album is now unavailable (you can stream it here). Lyrically, it explored dark themes - from abortion ("I believe a woman's temple, gives her the right to choose/ But baby don't abort") to suicide ("I’m about to drive in the ocean, I’mma try to swim from something bigger than me") and drugs (Novocane's drug fuelled sexual encounter that leaves him "numb"). In hindsight, his lyric "I believe that marriage isn't between a man and woman, but between love and love" from We All Try is indicative of his liberal views.

Controversy continues with 'Channel Orange', exploring different aspects of love: the carefree love of Sweet Life, religion and love in the organ-backed Bad Religion, and drug dependency in Crack Rock, Pilot Jones and Lost. This is far from the "gay" album some may now anticipate. Although a couple of tracks do allude to Ocean's sexuality, such as the reminiscence of Thinkin Bout You ("And though you were my first time, a new feel...") or, more explicitly, Forrest Gump ("You run my mind boy, running on my mind boy"), what's important is that these are searingly honest love songs. Other tracks reveal his views on women: Pyramids is a nine minute dual-narrative epic that juxtaposes the last pharaoh of Egypt with a modern day Cleopatra working in strip-joint 'The Pyramid', if anything hinting at his bisexuality.

Ultimately, Sierra Leone's opening of "I just ran out of Trojans...we're behaving like teenagers" sums up the album - less political statement and more carefree young love, often unrequited, encapsulated through bravely honest lyrical content.

The album takes the title literally in its concept.  Intro track Start begins with a TV turning on, followed by the start-up of PlayStation game Street Fighter (perhaps a cheeky link to tracks from 'Nostalgia, Ultra' Street Fighter, Goldeneye and Soul Calibur).  With the use of interspersed short tracks and samples, the album is an eclectic mix - much like his website - the album's real concept simply offering a snapshot into Ocean's mind.

The idiosyncratic production is equally eclectic.  Ocean is champion of a futuristic style of R&B, similar to the likes of The Weeknd, Drake and (to an extent)  Poliça.  The episodic Pyramids shifts from ambient synths, to funky R&B, to guitar-laden slow jam; its dark, gritty, urban synths akin to the Ocean we're familiar with from No Church In The Wild and Novocane.  The melody of Thinkin Bout You is constructed with aching beauty, hinting at Beyonce's I Miss You.  Elsewhere, there's a real emphasis on jazz and funk, such as on the chilled Sweet Life (co-written with Pharrell Williams) or Super Rich Kids.  Other artists feature, such as John Mayer on instrumental White and Andre 3000 on Pink Matter and their influences don't go unnoticed.

'Channel Orange' is probably the most important album of the year.  Ocean's sexuality will undoubtedly increase the album's importance in overcoming prejudice in the hip-hop community and promoting compassion.  Yet stylistically Ocean's spectacular production is at the cutting-edge of modern RnB; you can expect countless imitators over the coming months.  Forget the controversy - this is an album of beautiful love songs that capture the thoughts of one brave man's vision, bringing the heart and soul back into R&B.

Gizzle's Choice:
* Thinkin Bout You
* Pyramids
* Lost

Listen: 'Channel Orange' can be streamed from Ocean's website.  It's available to download on iTunes in the UK from July 13th, with physical copies available from July 23rd.

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* Drake