When R&B musician Frank Ocean dropped one of the best songs of the year in June, his fan base didn’t suddenly increase and the buzz around him didn’t swell. The track didn’t cause journalists to write hundreds of think pieces about him nor did he make national headlines.
But when Ocean, 24, wrote his first love was with a man in a poetic Tumblr post about two weeks ago, the singer-songwriter found himself at the center of a media frenzy. New listeners (perhaps intrigued by Ocean’s sexual past) flocked to check out his smooth tunes, practically every news outlet reported his revelation and his peers praised him for his courageous announcement -- some even said he single handily changed the face of the rap world, which is known for being homophobic. In the midst of all this, Ocean said he would be releasing his debut album "channel ORANGE" a week early via iTunes.
Now that the hype is on full blast and the interest surrounding Ocean has reached its peak, many interested listeners and fans around the country will be running out to stores today to purchase "channel ORANGE." But does the album really deserve all of this attention? Not really.
"channel ORANGE" is a good record. Not great, but good. It has its monumental highs and it certainly has its flaws.
In June, Ocean released the LP’s second single "Pyramids" -- a ten-minute epic that transcends time and genre. The track transforms from a club smasher about Cleopatra in ancient Egypt to an R&B slow jam where we find Ocean at a strip club, "she’s workin’ at the Pyramid tonight," he sings over dazzling synths and a spacey guitar played by John Mayer. The song is so grand it is an easy contender for the best track of 2012.
"Pyramids" is "channel ORANGE"’s centerpiece and easily the best song on the album. But "Bad Religion," which Ocean recently premiered on late night TV, is another impressive standout. The track addresses the musician’s same-sex love affair in a taxicab confession ("Taxi driver, be my shrink for an hour/ Leave the meter running...just outrun the demons, could you?"). It’s clear Ocean has been hurt as his vocals carry a heavy and sad weight when he chants "I could never make him love me /Never make him love me /Love, love..." while a church organ bellows through the song and a delicate string section dances around Ocean’s stunning voice.
On the up-tempo "Super Rich Kids" Ocean channels Stevie Wonder and does a magnificent job at creating a catchy hook and brilliant lyrics: "Too many bottles of this wine we can’t pronounce/ too many bowls of that green no lucky charms/ the maids come around too much/ parents ain’t around enough/ too many joy rides in daddy’s jaguar/ too many white lies and white lines," he sings over a piano riff that comes close to Elton John’s iconic "Bennie and the Jets."
The front half of "channel ORANGE" is the best. Tracks, including "Sweet Life," "Thinkin About You" and "Sierra Leone" set the sleek and sexy tone for the entire LP. But things start to lose steam toward the last third of the album. While there isn’t anything terrible on the record, "Pyramids," "Bad Religion" and "Super Rich Kids" tower over everything else and it’s almost impossible not to skip through the other cuts in order to replay the standouts over and over again.
"Forest Gump," "Pink Matter," "Lost" and "Crack Rock" are all decent enough but they hide in the shadows of the album’s highlights.
Another problem with the record is its odd sequencing. It feels as though Ocean picked the order of the tracks out of a hat and at times the flow of the record is broken by a misplaced skit or the tone of the LP suddenly shifts. The lack of cohesiveness takes away from the theatrics the record tries to achieve and at times the jarring switch ups become annoying.
When the album does reach those high points, however, it’s not hard to understand why Ocean is so incredibly popular. Last year’s mixtape, "Nostalgia, Ultra," laid down the groundwork for his future music career (thanks to the amazing single "Novocain") and since working with Beyonce and appearing on Jay-Z and Kanye West’s album "Watch the Throne," Ocean has totally grown into himself as a musician.
It’s easy to get caught up in the hype machine. Earlier this year, the same thing happened to the controversial songstress Lana Del Rey. But when push came to shove her music didn’t really hold up to her buzz as she gave us a collection of bland songs on her debut. "channel ORANGE," however, contains enough strong tracks to keep the listener interested. The album is a grower and it will take a few spins before you start humming the catchy hooks and melodies.
Although the record isn’t an instant classic, it does showcase Ocean’s talents and proves that the young musician is a brilliant songwriter and outstanding vocalist with a penchant for crafting jams that transcend genres.
by Frank Ocean