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Friday, July 27, 2012

Frank Ocean - 'channel ORANGE'

 

Frank Ocean – channel ORANGE
Def Jam, 2012
Our Take: 9.1


Written by Bradley Davis


Before beginning any review, I like to clear the air about the circumstances under which I am writing. I like to state my experience with the band or musician in the past, events that have happened or are currently happening that have thematic significance within the album, and generally contextualize my particular perspective. With that, I must make the admission that, before this album, I didn't care for Frank Ocean. Nostalgia, Ultra frustrated me with its restraint and failure to coalesce into an emotionally cohesive whole. This guy is part of Odd Future, right? Why isn't there more passion here? Why does it sound so adult-contemporary? Perhaps his affiliations gave me an unfair notion of what to expect. Fast forward to now, and the exuberant anarchism of OFWGKTA has worn out its welcome – especially after the rather pitiful showing, in my opinion, of Tyler's Goblin – so that affiliation doesn't mean as much as it used to. Two things made me pay attention to this album: one, the stellar early reviews coming in from just about everywhere, and two, Frank's infamous blog post revealing his bisexuality.

As someone with a vested interest in both LGBTQ issues and hip-hop, the two rarely converge in a positive way. Those particular crossroads often consist of me trying to convince my friends and peers that they can't discount the entire genre because a few slurs get thrown around by certain artists. Instead, we had an artist coming to terms with his own sexuality, which in turn showered him with praise from his record label – certainly one of the most prominent and influential in hip-hop no less – and fellow artists. How often does that happen? In fact, I think this represents not only a mainstream acceptance of non-normative sexualities, but, more importantly, acceptance within an industry and a culture that have steadfastly maintained the status quo.

Frank's approach to sexuality in general separates him from the usual discourse of the subject in modern hip-hop and R&B. He brings a certain sincere and wholly realistic tenderness, often keeping the pronouns at an anonymous “you” distance. This is not a work that wallows in genitalia and explicit metaphors. This is a work that writhes alone in its bed as the sun rises after a long, drunken, heartbreaking night. This is a work that appreciates gentle strokes against the cheek, or kisses along the collarbone. All art springs forth from tragedy, personal disasters like heartbreak, death, or any of a number of inevitable losses along the road of life, but channel ORANGE is different. Pain runs deep throughout this album, but you can practically see all of the different piles laid out on Frank's floor as he's unpacking and sorting his emotional baggage.

Musically, the production is slick and modern, but it still ignites with a raw energy lacking a lot of overproduced pop music these days. This is probably the best extant argument for the validity of Auto-Tune as a stylistic tool; Frank's voice is undeniably beautiful and accomplished, but the occasional digital treatment compliments the dreamy, electro-inspired beats on tracks like “Pyramids” very well. Much like Nostalgia, Ultra, ORANGE shifts around stylistically constantly, but this album seems to have a more even tone than his previous release. All of the different genres dipped into here, from funk to stadium rock to lounge jazz to classic soul, seem filtered through the same sieve, and all carry the same stain of the pains of unrequited love and the inherent loneliness of fame.

With this audacious debut, Frank Ocean turns a page in modern R&B; one that feels simultaneously forward-thinking and rooted deeply in a musical tradition all but lost today. Whereas the larger-than-life, rigidly masculine, ferociously sexual men reigned in the genre in the past, Frank is hopefully opening the door for the insecure, tender, and fallible. The emotion complexity of this album gives it a depth and staying power that feels realer and more authentic than anything else in recent memory. Frank doesn't front. This is him, stripped down to the blood vessels and muscles.

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