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Frank Ocean, ‘Channel Orange’ – Album Review

Def Jam Recordings
Def Jam Recordings

For the last few days, Frank Ocean has been the biggest thing in music, without question.

It’s the inevitable climax after weeks of buzz surrounding his closely guarded, proper debut album; its acclaimed 10-minute prog-soul teaser track, ‘Pyramids’; Ocean’s (soon-to-be epochal) Independence Day coming-out via Tumblr; this week’s incredible national television debut on the 666th episode of ‘Late Night with Jimmy Fallon,’ and Monday night’s surprise early digital release of ‘Channel Orange,’ which immediately shot to the top of the iTunes charts and has showed no sign of budging since.

The 24-year old who emerged as a cult singer-songwriter after the release of his mixtape ‘Nostalgia, Ultra’ has burst into the popular imagination, not to mention their search engines: Ocean has been putting up Bieber numbers on Google and Twitter all week.

But hype — especially fickle internet hype — will always be a double-edged sword. And few and far between are the artists and albums who can surmount the high standards set for them by the overly-excitable internet prognosticators who form that ugly, multi-headed Hype Hydra with a taste for its own young.

But 36 hours after ‘Channel Orange’ dropped, it seems the Odd Future soul man is gracefully slaying that bad-postured, four-eyed monster that ate his younger comrades.

So did he deliver the masterpiece that so many expected of him (or felt like he owed them)? Maybe. It could be, but it’s too early to tell, and anyone who definitively says “yes” or “no” so early into the game is full of it. Even more so than ‘Nostalgia, Ultra’ before, ‘Channel Orange’ is a dense album, as coy as its creator, and one that demands multiple spins before its subtle and sophisticated threads begin to unravel.

Even on the first listen, the album offers a few instant classics. ‘Pyramids,’ with that galloping synth hook and unheard of running time, emerged as one of the best songs of the year weeks ago. (Plus it flaunts this great verse: “Pimpin’ in my convo / Bubbles in my champagne, let it be some jazz playing / Top floor motel suite, twisting’ my cig-arrs / Floor model TV with the VC-RRR.”)

‘Bad Religion’ will go down in the books as the song that explicitly discussed Ocean’s bisexuality, but it should be remembered for the heartbreaking Jon Brion-style string section driving the confessional. ‘Lost’ globetrots like Cat Power‘s latest single and is anchored by bass thumps and guitar stabs that call to mind Gang of Four, of all things.

And ‘Pink Matter,’ featuring an always-welcome return to the booth by André 3000, takes a couple of minutes to launch, with Ocean wailing a bit aimlessly over beatless loops and orchestration. But when that bass introduces itself with a flick and the drums thump, it becomes the second half’s brightest highlight.

Even when the album slumps — and it does, for a few minutes, in the middle — the music is still gripping and promising, if only for the allure of finding something great that’s not immediately apparent.

Weak points and all, ‘Channel Orange’ is a promising, neon beacon that a change is gonna come. Or, at least, it may just be around the corner.

Contemporary R&B is a noble, complex, demanding genre. Unlike rock music, where three chords and a proto beat can be turned into a brilliant song, R&B by its very nature is a difficult genre to write for and an even more challenging form of music to play, with its roots firmly set in jazz, its signature raw emotionality, its numerous subtleties. Difficult as it is to create, its greatest American purveyors have given us some of the greatest albums ever recorded: ‘Innervisions,’ ‘What’s Going On’ (and its brilliantly difficult younger brother, ‘Here, My Dear’), ‘Purple Rain,’ ‘Voodoo,’ the list goes on.

But it’s no secret that the current state of contemporary R&B has been in shambles lately, with hollow, disposable singing heads like Chris Brown, Trey Songz (and, help us, T-Pain) guarding the gates and devaluing the charts and airwaves where Marvin, Stevie, and Michael once ruled.

Sure, the genre has its active greats: R. Kelly is a fantastical, if inconsistent, genius. The-Dream certainly has his moments but doesn’t have the back to carry it all himself. Raphael Saadiq failed to launch into the zeitgeist, sadly enough.

The promising ones have been AWOL: Lauryn Hill is indefinitely retired, and D’Angelo — dear God, D’Angelo — is just now returning to the shelves after a 12-year absence full of drugs and depression.

For years, the best of new R&B has scraped by on young guns raiding the sounds of the ’60s and been steadied by its grandparents (see over-the-hill releases by Al Green, Solomon Burke, Charles Bradley, Sharon Jones, Mavis Staples). But as far as forward-thinking, rule-bending visionaries — the lifeblood of any form of art — the genre has consistently come up short-handed, save, notably, Cee-Lo and Janelle Monae.

But with the critical and mainstream successes surrounding this album, it’s obvious: R&B fans are thirsty for this type of rich, spartan, and, above all, honest music.

‘Channel Orange’ may not be the perfect album we’ve wanted, but it’s a promising and consistently rewarding document from a brilliant artist with his best to come and, let’s hope, the first and much needed wake up call to a genre in desperate need of a revival.

9 out of 10 diffuser.fm rating

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