Release date: 10th July 2012
Label: Def Jam
If you didn’t know who Frank Ocean was a month ago, I can almost guarantee you know who he is now. When he released his open letter on Tumblr on 4th July, all hell (in this case, opinions) broke loose. “Why should I care about his sexuality?” and “I can’t believe all those songs I loved could have been about men” were popular ones, as was “Today is a big day for hip-hop”, “He’s still a G though” and of course “It’s all just a publicity stunt”. In one way or another, I kinda agree with all of those statements. I don’t think we should care about the lives of people who affect our own lives with nothing but music, but still my first reaction was to care. We can’t deny that we form opinions on these people, and that the amount that we can relate to their music often relies on how we perceive them. And whether we like it or not, they have the power to influence in a positive or negative way.
Coming out of a section of the industry that is not open-minded towards homosexuality or bisexuality, I think it was incredibly brave and inspirational what Frank did, and I liked the way he did it too. Doing what he does best, he was completely open and honest about his emotions, emotions which we have all experienced. The open letter was beautifully written and very relatable, regardless of your gender or sexuality, and the day it was released was indeed a big day for hip-hop. Although it probably also was a publicity stunt, I don’t really see it that way. The rumours had already started, he knew that people would find out eventually and he was about to drop an album which would probably make the rumours spiral out of control and potentially ruin his album launch. I see nothing wrong with him taking matters into his own hands, being in control of what people knew, and of how they found out. And it wasn’t your typical publicity stunt, it wasn’t a “nobody” trying to make a name for themselves by releasing a sex tape. It was an important step in the industry – an already widely known and respected musician getting something off his chest publicly. Before you roll your eyes, believe me when I say most people cared. And it’s a good thing that a few more people know who he is now, because he is definitely an artist worth knowing about.
I didn’t wanna go in too deep about the open letter and sexuality issue in an album review, but with an album which is undoubtedly a game changer like this one, context is key. Now I always thought that the wide variety of content and stories, the simple but clever lyrics and the raw honest emotion coming through on Frank’s previous release nostalgia, ULTRA were pretty groundbreaking, but channel ORANGE as his first official album, goes much much further.
The album showcases a collection of stories, some which seem personal and auto-biographical, others which seem like imagined fantasies, many of which are confusing but all of which are equally compelling. During an interview with The Quietus late last year, when discussing whether or not his music was based on personal experience, Frank said, “I don’t do cocaine for breakfast! At all. My kitchen is usually pretty clean, you know. But you have fun with the imagery, and for me the whole concept that everything has to be… Like, nobody gets upset with a director when a director’s film isn’t about his life. People think that with a recording artist that shit has to be like a fucking play by play of their whole life, but it’s not. It’s imagery, and a little bit of satire.”
Whatever the origin of his content, just like the film directors that he seems to admire so much, he manages to create brilliant imagery and a vivid atmosphere to surround his stories, leaving them up for interpretation by the listener. Pyramids is a perfect example of this. This epic journey of a track (as it as been widely described since Frank leaked it in June), starts off as an Ancient Egyptian tale of Cleopatra which merges into a modern day pimp and prostitute story. Along with many others on the album, I didn’t get it first off. I’m not sure if I get it now, or if I’ll ever get it, or if I’ll ever know whether or not I get it, but I know that I’ve never heard anything like it before and I know that it’s been put together perfectly. Ranging from traditional RnB grooves to an instrumental segment which would not sound out of place at a European electro club night, the production on this track, handled mainly by Frank himself with help from Malay and Om’Mas Keith, is just as conflicting as the split story, a variation which continues just as much throughout the album.
Some may say that the album lacks cohesion, that the songs are so varied to the point that they don’t flow well into each other, but I don’t see it that way. Just like how nostalgia, ULTRA had the concept of tape decks, with sounds of rewinding and fast-forwarding during the interludes, this album has a concept of channels. With each track you are metaphorically changing the channel, from the Fertiliser advert of track three to the drug-fuelled tales of Pilot Jones and or the ignorant bliss of the Super Rich Kids and their Sweet Life.
For me though, the immediate stand-out track on channel ORANGE has to be Pink Matter featuring Andre 3000. Everything from the odd but magically poetic lyrics (What if the sky and the stars are for show/ And the aliens are watching live/ From the purple matter/ Sensei went quiet then violent/ And we sparred until we both grew tired/ Nothing mattered), to the smooth funk-inspired elegant production, to Andre 3000′s verse and the best and sweetest range of Frank’s voice I’ve heard is simply beautiful. It is a perfect song. The vocals on the album alone are enough to make you want to listen to it over and over, Frank’s manipulation of his voice makes for very pleasant listening and he sings with much more conviction and range than before. You would enjoy it even if you didn’t understand the language.
His talents as a wordsmith are also much more evident on channel ORANGE than they have been previously. He makes some very interesting comparisons and analogies, in particular one with unrequited love and a one-man cult to describe his pain on Bad Religion. He also uses a lot of very clever double entendres: “Hitting stones in glass homes” on Crack Rock, for example, refers not only to the well-known saying, but also to the act of smoking crack from a pipe and possibly even in a broken home. The entire album is filled with lyrics like these, the kind that you would only usually find on hip-hop records. This, along with Frank’s use of an incredibly wide range of imaginative and emotive stories which we have never heard anywhere before and go further than he has ever done previous, is probably the most game-changing aspect of the album. Yes, the fact that he sings on Forrest Gump “Running on my mind, boy” is pretty unheard of, but his sexual orientation is definitely not what has made him a pioneering musician. When you hear his tales of love, it becomes completely irrelevant anyway, and he has not made it his master status either. He discusses many other ideas in many different ways, exploring various emotions and different people’s lives to create a purely excellent debut album. I have a feeling I’m gonna love it more than nostalgia, ULTRA.
My Rating: 9.5/10