Frank Ocean is one of the boldest and most exciting artists in the music industry right now. He is an artist determined to do things his way, at his pace and is not one to adhere to typical music conventions. Over the last year, he’s proved this by self-releasing a 14 track mixtape for free with no promotion, opting to join rap-group Odd Future instead of signing with Def Jam, turning down an offer from Kanye West to appear on his debut album, and his recent public revelation regarding his sexuality.
The sheer quality of his mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra, which was widely considered one of the best releases of 2011, launched Frank from an unknown ghost-writer, to the go-to guy for writing lyrical hooks. He has since been featured by Jay-Z and Kanye West on ‘Watch the Throne’, written songs for Beyonce and is making an appearance on Nas’ upcoming album. And now we finally have his debut album Channel Orange, released digitally a week earlier than expected due to Franks’ unique methods.
Overall, the record feels much more like a proper ‘album’ than Nostalgia, Ultra did; the tone is more consistent and polished, and gone are the reworks of well known songs, yet it retains the deep, thoughtful and often controversial lyrical topics that made the initial mixtape a musical breath of fresh air. Frank Ocean thinks of himself as a storyteller, and the record contains plenty of chronicles of drug addiction, love, sexuality, the ignorance of the rich, prostitution and more. Yet these seem to be more than simple tales that he has heard or witnessed; one of the greatest aspects of Franks’ song writing is his ability to tackle topics with which he has a deep personal connection, which allows his true passions to pour out of his songs when he sings. In the soft, beautiful opening track ‘Thinkin Bout You’, he questions himself about his true feelings for another and the lies he tells himself to ease his pain. This sort of story telling is rare, and it allows Frank to be one of the most honest and passionate R&B artists around.
After the mellow opener, the jazzy ‘Sweet Life’ is where the pace of the album begins to pick up, with a groovy, sweet flow, featuring one of Frank’s best vocal performances on the album. Next, the fairly minimal but bouncy ‘Super Rich Kids’, featuring fellow OFWGKTA member Earl Sweatshirt, is a dig at the parenting abilities of the rich, stating “Parents ain’t around enough” and there’s “Too many white lies and white lines”, once again, like ‘American Wedding’ from his mixtape, showing Franks concerns with American culture.
Other album highlights include ‘Lost’, a tale of a drug dealer and his mule, which is sung delicately over only a choppy guitar riff and simple yet calming drums and bass. The upbeat, funky ‘Monks’ features some of the best and catchiest vocal hooks, and ‘Bad Religion’ is a gorgeous, thought provoking insight into Franks inner conflict regarding his religious views, as he wonders if religion holds the answers to life’s questions. However the centrepiece of the album, the 10 minute long ‘Pyramids’, is the stand out track. A song that lyrically and musically evolves several times throughout its duration. It beings slowly, but quickly builds it’s way towards a thumping, rave-esc middle section, before slowly twisting into a sexy yet dark R&B classic. Curiously, ‘Pyramids’, the best song on Channel Orange is also the song that would have best fit into the tone and atmosphere of Nostalgia, Ultra.
The album is a clear evolution from Frank Oceans’ previous release. The themes are as provocative and dark as before, if not more so, and the musical direction is better defined as a more straight up R&B album. However despite all of this and some fantastic songs, the album doesn’t quite have the magical spark of excitement that Nostalgia, Ultra did. On the mixtape, each song had it’s own unique atmospheric feel, and was easily distinguishable from the other songs on the album. However, when listening Orange Channel, you sometimes get the feeling that you’ve already heard a few of the songs before, on the album or elsewhere. While some of the songs do have the excitement and feeling of fresh innovation that the Nostalgia, Ultra tunes did, the thrill of the initial mixtape has not quite been recreated in this otherwise remarkable debut album, which will hopefully be the stepping stone to Frank Oceans’ next great achievement.
3.5 out of 5