Unearthed: Frank Ocean— channel ORANGE
Posted in Unearthed
Channeling something more
Two nights ago, a week before its scheduled release, Frank Ocean digitally released his highly anticipated debut album channel ORANGE. While I imagine the unfortunate few who still sell actual compact discs were pissed, everyone else on Earth was elated. With all eyes on Frank thanks to the beautifully written piece he posted to his tumblr last week, it would be safe to say that there have been few albums in recent memory as highly anticipated for reasons beyond music than channel ORANGE. That said, while a whole new audience surely now has interest in Frank Ocean, those of us who already did have been itching to hear the album thanks to very valid musical reasons. What we got could not have been more satisfying. Whereas the mixtape nostalgia, ULTRA established him as a man with tons of promise, channel ORANGE has cemented Frank Ocean as musical luminary.
From the moment the first song, track two “Thinkin Bout You,” began I immediately fell in love with this album, and nothing that followed over the next fifteen tracks did anything other than reinforce that sentiment. The album actually starts with “Start,” a sparse, spacey cobbling together of distant voices and nostalgic sounds, setting a stage for a personal, intimate album. Lyrically, channel ORANGE delivers on this promise, and “Thinkin Bout You” is the first example of this, with lyrics like “My eyes don’t shed tears, but boy, they pour when I’m thinkin’ ‘bout you.” Next up is the all too concise and elusively delicious “Fertilizer” that, much like The Beatles’ Let it Be album versions of “Maggie May” and “Dig It,” is so sweet and short that it leaves the listener wanting more. “Sierra Leone,” a gentle, atmospheric croon, follows before “Sweet Life,” a track released as a single just a few days ago, begins. The thought that, wherever he is, Stevie Wonder loves channel ORANGE first occurred to me during the bittersweet and Stevie-esque “Fertilizer,” but “Sweet Life,” perhaps the best song on the album, would equally impress the legend. Uplifting horns and Frank’s incredible vocals turn what starts out as another gentle tune into something special; co-written and co-produced by Frank and the fantastic Pharrell Williams the song may well end up as the defining track of the album. Frank isn’t singing about the same “Sweet Life” you’d expect most contemporary musical artists to be singing about; in fact I hardly think such a life interests him.
Despite employing a super simple beat built around a plodding “Bennie and the Jets” sample, “Super Rich Kids” may make the plaudits I gave “Sweet Life” seem premature, because the interplay between Earl Sweatshirt’s stone-faced rap and Frank’s effortlessly beautiful singing make it unlike any other track on the album. Like the idea “Sweet Life” partially conveys, “Super Rich Kids” is all about a jaded world view that doesn’t equate with the ideals many of our generation are conditioned to be interested in. Frank and Earl admit they aren’t from the sort of humble origins many of their contemporaries are all too proud to have risen from, but that difference doesn’t make them anymore satisfied.
In between “Sweet Life” and “Super Rich Kids” is the spoken word interlude “Not Just Money,” and due to the nature of the songs that sandwich it, it couldn’t have been placed better. A recording of a one-sided conversation seemingly between a mother and her child, the one-minute interlude explores the complicated nature of the relationship between money and happiness, but provides us with little answers other than the fact that money is “Not Just Money.”
“Pilot Jones” creates an aura unto itself as Frank briefly channels Prince at moments before an extended outro of airplane sounds wraps up the floating amongst the clouds experience and gives way to “Crack Rock.” Yet another stand out, “Crack Rock” is as close to explicit social commentary as Frank gets on the album, painting a picture of a crack user shut out even by his own family before commenting on how “no one hear[s] the sound[s]” of tragedies in the ghetto. “Crack Rock” may feature my favorite production on channel ORANGE and with no other producer credited I can only assume Frank did this track all by himself. This dude doesn’t just sing; this dude does it all.
“Pyramids,” another track released as a single a couple of days ago, is an epic, awesome song that will surely spawn a million dance remixes. “Pyramids” puts all of Frank’s many talents on display, from his great voice to his impressive ability to construct such an interesting tune, even a little bit of laid back rapping is thrown in the mix.
Track 11, “Lost,” pairs a playful beat with more of Frank’s heartfelt lyrics. On a personal note, I’d love to tell Frank I really appreciated the Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas reference in “Lost,” as a quiet voice in the background softly says “Too weird to live, too rare to die,” a favorite line of mine from the film which was drawn from a different work of Hunter S. Thompson’s. I don’t think Frank is quite on the same level as Dr. Gonzo (thankfully), but as I discussed in Kudos Frank Ocean, it’s not very far-fetched to imagine the artist identifying himself as an outsider. The soft, sedate “White” is little more than a musical interlude, but interestingly features John Mayer on guitar. “Monks” picks things back up again; a song about fleeting encounters with fantastical elements surrounding forbidden getaways.
“Bad Religion” is yet another track which may represent the best channel ORANGE has to offer. A gorgeous tune defined by a gorgeous organ intro and elegant strings, “Bad Religion” could be the album’s most personal track. Imagining a scene wherein he pours his heart out to a makeshift shrink in the form of a taxi driver, Frank laments the trappings of his “unrequited love” and the difficult fact that he could never make the object of his affections feel the same way. At his lyrical best, Frank beautifully captures the impossible situation he finds himself in, singing “I swear I’ve got three lives/Balanced on my head like steak knives/I can’t tell you the truth about my disguise/I can’t trust no one,” before finishing the song with what may be the album’s definitive message: “It’s bad religion/To be in love with someone/Who could never love you/I know/Only bad religion/Could have me feeling the way I do.”
Andre 3000 makes an appearance on “Pink Matter,” another plodding beat similar to “Super Rich Kids,” but unlike the back and forth that exists between Frank and Earl, “Pink Matter” is essentially divided into two halves, one belonging to Frank, the other to Andre 3000. As much as I like the rap he lays down nothing in the track can top the glorious glimpse we get near the end of the song of Andre singing some lines of his own. Ultimately “Pink Matter” is a good track, but a disappointing one within the context of the two artists involved. Personally I was expecting more out of it, and at the very least I wish Frank had hopped in and harmonized alongside Andre 3000, if only for a little bit.
“Forrest Gump” is yet another song that could be tops of the album. According to my iTunes I have listened to “Forrest Gump” over twenty times. Did I mention this album just dropped the other night? Like so much of channel ORANGE it’s beautiful, elusive, and deeply personal. Another perfect organ intro sets up more of Frank’s perfect vocals as he comes in with “I wanna see your pom poms from the stands.” While Frank Ocean hasn’t changed as a man since he posted his beautifully written entry for the liner notes to channel ORANGE, he has changed as a figure. As the opening lines of “Forrest Gump” play, it becomes clear Frank needs the support of those who look up to him just as much as he hopes he can be their inspiration. Perhaps in the gentle soul that is Forrest Gump, Frank sees someone to look up to; a man who, like himself, is who he is. Like Forrest, Frank means well, but who is as a person prevents him from being as innocuous to the world at large as he would like. “I know you Forrest/I know you wouldn’t hurt a beetle/But you’re so buff and so strong/I’m nervous Forrest.” Frank, like Forrest, can’t help what happens because of who he is, and he’s worried about that.
There is an impossible childhood love story in "Forrest Gump", and in his piece Frank alluded to an impossible romance he experienced in his youth. Forrest and Jenny get their improbable Hollywood ending, but in “Bad Religion” Frank admits that for him such a fairy tale isn’t likely. At the end of the song, as he sings a dedication, his voice is so true I can’t help but think he’s dedicating it all to someone a little more personal than the “Forrest Gump” he is singing to in those lines. Whoever he is though, this much is clear; the song he is dedicating to them is amazing.
The album ends with “End,” part song, part soundscape; a fitting finale to our tour within the mind of a true musical genius.
With so many influential friends within the recording industry, be it his fellow Odd Future friends or Kanye West and Jay-Z, it’s easy to imagine Frank could have pulled more guests for channel ORANGE, but one of the things I like most about the album is how personal it is; it’s basically all Frank. Frank co-wrote every track except the brief musical interlude “Fertilizer,” and only three of the tracks feature guests: “Pink Matter” has a cameo from Andre 3000, “Super Rich Kids,” with plenty of Earl Sweatshirt, feels like the only true collaboration, and if it hadn’t been pointed out you might never know John Mayer’s guitar playing is featured on “White.” Frank Ocean made a personal album, his album, and he couldn’t have done any better.
Since channel ORANGE dropped two nights ago I have basically been listening to it constantly. When I haven’t been actually listening to it I’ve either been singing “Super Rich Kids” or “Sweet Life” or enjoying “Thinkin Bout You” or “Fertilizer” play in my head. This album is so good from start to finish; I’m already well aware that the songs I’ve spent more time on here are just the ones that I’ve been hooked on most. With time I have no doubt the songs that only got sentences will inspire paragraphs of their own.
Stream Frank Ocean's channel ORANGE below, and purchase it now on iTunes