After a year of headlines – releasing his Nostalgia, Ultra mixtape for free online, temporarily getting in the bad books of Def Jam executives and releasing a statement on his sexuality – Frank Ocean has at last concocted up a superbly introspective and infectiously dynamic debut. While the soul singer’s viral news on his sexuality could have been seen as a mere publicity stunt, the lyrical merit, the thematic structure and the new-school soul brilliance adds a tasteful sustenance to the album and overlooks all doubt.
Channel Orange may well portray a new element to the contemporary R&B scene, but tinges of old guard can still be heard throughout the seventeen tracks. Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions revives itself in the quirky electro-soul interlude ‘Fertilizer’, as a Marvin Gaye and Prince baritone can be sourced out throughout the entire release. ‘Thinkin Bout You’ is a swift and rhythmic piece that starts the album with fluctuating vocal ranges; from thick, smooth tenors to fuzzy falsettos. Guided by all the ambiance of Ocean’s voice, the track consistently repeats a phased-out pad in the background and is akin to what might happen if Tony! Toni! Toné! and Burial were in the same studio together.
Not just an album that fuses vintage inspirations with new mechanics or gluing opposites with opposites, Channel Orange challenges pop culture’s modern nature. It’s an understatement to say that some lyrics are dismal, yet hopeful, and implicit of his sexual life; ‘End’ referring to the woman’s body as “juicy fruit”, and ‘Bad Religion’ possibly referring to his bisexuality as a “disguise” that he can’t trust anyone with. Unlike some of Ocean’s pop music counterparts, his words of self-ridicule, emotional ambivalence, loneliness and inner demise are as relative to the modern youth as was Brian Wilson’s Pet Sounds in 1966. Not exactly the ‘God Only Knows’ and ‘I Wasn’t Made For These Times’ context, ‘Crack Rock’ superbly examines the social and personal disasters of cocaine abuse, with “you’re smoking stones in abandoned homes” and “your family stopped inviting you to things” lyrically capturing that image. A James Blake-like Prophet ’08 and a strutting Mandrill keyboard complement the piece by maintaining a cool, hazy atmosphere.
The last track, ‘End’, concludes with a blissful and heavily reverberated lovers’ dialogue that’s sided by Ocean’s apt vocal finish. Channel Orange, in its everyday simple theme layout, holds a bigger picture that Gaye similarly had in What’s Going On?, Wonder in Songs In The Key Of Life and The Chi-Lites’ For God’s Sake, Give More Power To The People. It’s a masterful, dynamic and evocative collection of conversations between his inner-self and the listener.