Monday, July 16, 2012

Oceanic Exploration: Frank Ocean's "channel ORANGE"

Ocean in the depths
Who isn't talking about this New Orleans originated upstart? With one confession of his bisexuality, Ocean's (born Christopher Breaux) major label debut channel ORANGE (Island/Def Jam) is making waves. For a moment, if you remove the hype around his sexual orientation, it is clear that his debut is a product of several paradigm shifts in black music.

channel ORANGE isn't completely indebted to classic soul, nor is it so modern that it'd alienate an older audience. Its lineage can be traced back up and through the works of Prince and Stevie Wonder, who in turn influenced the likes of Erykah Badu and Maxwell; a sect of neo-soul members that defined the black music era roughly a decade ago. Their re-channeling and funnelling of older influences with their own set the stage for others to follow or break away from. channel ORANGE's main appeal is that it isn't trying to position itself to be regarded as "classic," "serious," or even "album of the year." The music itself happens to be strong enough to bring these ideas out in the audiences receiving the project. ORANGE puts the ideas of mainstream and underground R&B/hip-hop on its heads, and sends it spinning.

channel ORANGE is a difficult beast to tame with the ear. Deep, swirling, and subliminal, it requires returns to reach and search its murky depths. There are cascades of synths, discordant guitar feedback notes, smart samples (listen for the Playstation One start up chimes on "Start"). Once the listener embarks on the second to third listen, what comes to the surface is that Ocean has a voyeuristic and self-examining pen.

Ocean arcade style
Songs like ORANGE'S nexus, "Pyramids," place Ocean as an observer to the fall of an ancient romance, which soon becomes an allegory for prostitution and love for said prostitute through the eyes of her pimp. The finger wagging soul-piano vamp of "Super Rich Kids" (w/Earl Sweatshirt) is brought across as a chastisement of The L.A. Complex culture, something he clearly has lived and speaks on eloquently.

When Ocean is straightforward, the announcement of his same-sex attraction is poignant, beautiful, and (of course) tragic. Through "Thinkin Bout You," "Bad Religion," and "Forrest Gump" you can chart the reverse chronological flow of his journey. "Thinkin..." wields an odd blend of Kanye West flavored vocal cadence, but the mournful swells of the track keep it grounded in the lyrical narrative. "Bad Religion" is the requisite acknowledgement of sexual identity struggle strangling a fledgling romance. Lastly, "Forrest Gump," clutching to a bluesy, slow dance rhythm, is a tear inducing song that finds Sylvester and Keith Barrow smiling down from heaven at their follower. Elsewhere, quirks hopscotch around, check the altered voice that cuts through at the end of the pseudo-tropical punch of "End/Golden Girl" or the pink-filled violin center that drops in from nowhere on "Sierra Leone."

With his handsome, unassuming vocal presence the record vibes at a frequency that's approachable to the Top 40 crowd, but will win discerning music fans. channel ORANGE has got everyone talking, from what generated it, to the music it contains. Importantly, and what is being missed, is that it's something wholly different to what came before it, or what will come after it. It's a product rendered out of the uncountable style switches of popular black music culture and one that will mark another twist in its story. Five out of five stars.-QH

[Editor's Note: "End/Golden Girl" is only available on the physical copy of Ocean's new LP. For current information on Frank Ocean, visit him here.]

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I've been into Mr. Ocean's music for a little over a year if not more. I find him his music to be quite bold, very refreshing. If you are alive on any level & are a conscienous, feeling, emotional, thinking person you going find something on channel ORANGE that speaks to your soul. Great job Mr. Ocean. And Orange happens to be my favorite color.