Review: Frank Ocean, Channel Orange

Before we get into what Frank Ocean‘s Channel Orange is, let’s say what it isn’t. It is not the gay hip hop/R&B album.

Ocean, born Christopher “Lonny” Breaux, caused a sensation earlier this month publishing a letter saying his first love was another man and then giving a riveting performance of the taxicab confessional song Bad Religion on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon (above). While pop music has been open open to gay artists for years, hip hop and R&B have traditionally been less accepting of openly homosexual performers. The letter garnered Ocean a lot of attention, which is what his new album, Channel Orange, deserves, regardless of why you tuned in.

Orange is one of those albums that sounds like the emergence of a brilliant young talent. The 24 year old has been around as a writer for artists such as Justin Bieber and a member of the hip-hop collective Odd Future. Last year he dropped the acclaimed mix tape Nostalgia, Ultra, and Orange is his major label studio debut on Def Jam records, and it is as confident an opening bow as we have heard since Kanye West’s The College Dropout.

It is an album that demands attentive listening, at least the first few times around. That’s where you hear the connective tissue between the songs. It is a stream of money and sex that are the rewards of fame and a complete dissatisfaction with them. This won’t be a surprise to fans of his single, Novacane, released last year. Orange opens with the wistful Thinking Bout You, also previously released, pining for an idyllic love. Then a few tracks later, we are into Super Rich Kids, a longing for genuine emotion in the face of excess. Crack Rock is a great listen in spite of its focus on drugs and violence, leading into Pyramids, which completely defies the conventional belief that young writers should not attempt concept pieces. The 10-minute track makes Cleopatra and her fall a metaphor for everything we have been hearing about for the last half hour with brilliant rhymes and innovative structure. If this album didn’t have Bad Religion, Pyramids would be the masterpiece of Channel Orange.

As great as it was on Fallon, Bad Religion is even better in the context of the album. After expressing an outward and even historical view for the majority of the album, the song focuses inward, quietly. Ocean resists any compulsion to demonstrative drama, instead tending to his emotional wounds in a corner. You sort of want to push stop as the track fades, though there are a few more numbers including the playful Forrest Gump.

And really, as one of the most compelling albums this year, you don’t want to change the channel.

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