Even though Frank Ocean got his start as a member of the outrageous rap group Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, from the very beginning he was very obviously more mature than the rest of them. As the group’s oldest member, it seemed that Ocean, with his silken voice and talent for songwriting, was destined for more artistic efforts than Odd Future’s antics. He proved his potential with a memorable mixtape called Nostalgia, Ultra; now, with his long-awaited debut album channel ORANGE, Ocean has stepped the game up another notch, delivering an intimate and conceptually sophisticated effort that is sure to cement his place as an independent artist, no longer moored to his rapcore roots.
One just has to admire how seamless and fantastically polished ORANGE is: the first track, “Start”, and other forty-second interlude tracks of its ilk, are awash in channel-change static and distant voices, and the first few songs, including the delicious “Sierra Leone” and the unforgettable “Sweet Life”, ease the listener into the beachy, palmy sunset vibe of Southern California, the same place evoked by the Eagles in “Hotel California”, a place of consumerist paradises and broken romances that Ocean explores in detail over the course of the album. He dissects unrequited love and pining suburban hearts in the smooth “Thinkin Bout You” and in other songs such as “Pilot Jones” and “Forrest Gump”. The sound could not be any crisper, the balance of tones and effects could not be any more perfect and chilling. It’s just mouth-watering. Though Ocean said that he wanted to focus on telling sophisticated and complete stories with this effort rather than delivering sonic delights, he could not help but achieve the latter.
He achieves the former too: each song sheds light on some fractured romantic situation, some aspect of life in the indulgent expanses of the suburbs. They often do it with style, too (see “Super Rich Kids”, which improves slowly from droning repetitions of lines by Odd Future companion Earl Sweatshirt to a slow-jam indictment of the shallowness of being a spoiled little criminal punk in a rich neighborhood), but as the album goes on, especially in its second half, it sometimes seems like Ocean only has so many stories to tell. The songs are all good, but after a few listens songs like “Forrest Gump” and “Lost” and the almost-annoying “Crack Rock” may not prove to be so lasting. The album is consistently good and well-produced, and pleasing to the ear, but is only excellent sometimes, when Ocean changes pace, throwing the listener a one-minute instrumental with John Mayer noodling (“White”), a complex exploration of the workings of the psyche accompanied by Andre 3000 of OutKast (“Pink Matter”), or a ten-minute electronic breakdown funk masterpiece (“Pyramids”, undoubtedly the album’s best track). When Frank changes it up, adding to his powerful vocal abilities with supplemental flair and creativity, the result is as enticing as anything in music today.
Where Frank really demonstrates the evolution of his artistry, though, is in the album’s subtlety. I cannot help but think that what really makes channel ORANGE is the sound of the airline seatbelt light going on in “Pilot Jones”, the robotic echoes in “Pyramids”, or the hazy monologue on materialism in the one-minute “Not Just Money”. Explore ORANGE enough and you find all sorts of nuances in Ocean’s invocation of channel-surfing through life in Ladera Heights. In each of the little static channel changes, from “Start” to the closing track “End”, one finds the skill and vision that make Frank the unique crooner he is: more, in other words, than just a pretty voice. Score: 8.5/10.
Strong Tracks: “Pyramids”, “Bad Religion”, “Super Rich Kids”, “Pilot Jones”
Weak Tracks: “Crack Rock”, “Forrest Gump”, “Lost”
Jake Bittle / A&E Editor