Monday, August 27, 2012

Frank Ocean's penmanship will keep you glued to channel ORANGE

Who would have thought that Frank Ocean would emerge at the top of the Odd Future heap? We'd heard little of the Odd Future hookmaster aside from last year's Nostalgia Ultra mixtape, which was overshadowed by Tyler, the Creator's painfully inferior Goblin. If nothing else, Ocean shows he's certainly the best writer of the bunch.

channel ORANGE showcases everything from the young hip lifestyle to modern urban decadence while featuring lyrics rife with references to Egyptian mythology, Dragonball Z, and Forrest Gump. When the album opens with the sound of a Windows computer starting up, followed by video game plinking and plunking, you know this is an album Frank is going to be taking on his own terms.

channel ORANGE's most compelling songs occur when Ocean combines his breathtaking lyricism with his ability to set a mood. Opener "Thinkin' Bout You" starts off inauspiciously, as Ocean sounds rather flat in his lower register. As the track progresses, it evolves into a smooth, hip urban love song showcasing a young man's infatuation with a sweet young lady.

The album begins to hit its stride with the Pharrell Williams produced "Sweet Life," which showcases Ocean's ability to elaborately construct a picture in your mind's eye. In this case, he's painting a portrait of someone born into a life of wealth and opulence. This is someone who's had every need provided for them and has no idea what it's like to suffer or struggle.

You can easily envision the environs of the rich summer beach house with a gentle breeze blowing over you. Waves crash in the background while you sink your teeth into an extravagant mango, peach and lime concoction. A jazzy Neptunes influenced keyboard piece serves as the base beat, while the brassy horns and uplifting vocals in the chorus creates a sense of grandeur. If for some reason the music business doesn't work out, Ocean could have a budding career as a novelist.

Ocean also takes time out to address the concerns of urban sprawl and decay. "Super Rich Kids" takes a look at the fast paced, destructive, and ultimately empty lives of super privileged high school kids. The main hook tells of escapades with weed, top shelf wine, joy riding in jaguars, and ultimately, the superficiality of such a lifestyle, describing them as "Super rich kids with nothing but loose ends/ Super rich kids with nothing but fake friends."

Ocean's verses contrast this by focusing on enjoying the simple fleeting pleasures of life. The message turns out to be a poignant one, as he plummets off a roof 60 stories to his death at the song's conclusion. Along the way, Odd Future cohort Earl Sweatshirt drops a hazy, laid back verse to inject a bit of variety.

These songs help set the stage for the album's centerpiece and by far its most complex and stunning song, "Pyramids." Ocean's opening strains easily recall the greatness of 60s era Motown soul. It's packed full of ancient Egyptian, African and biblical imagery, bolstered by shimmering rave and electro-trance beats that sound fit for the club but never cheap or cheesy. There are a shifting myriad of beats and electronic work over the course of the song's nearly 10 minute length, as Ocean seeks his Cleopatra.

The second half shifts into more of a traditional sounding R&B song, but Ocean never loses his sense of magnetism. He ties his narrative into what was going on in the first half by focusing on a modern day girl named Cleopatra who works at a club named The Pyramid. Frank's voice is both lustful and mournful as he focuses on their current situation. A bluesy guitar solo is played over the last few minutes, giving the listener a chance to absorb everything in.

Of course, it wouldn't be right to finish this without a look at "Bad Religion," the song that spurred Frank Ocean to out himself. It expresses a touching, sweeping portrait of Ocean's sexuality and the passion of his love for another man, and his own inner struggle. It takes place as a backseat taxi cab confessional as Frank unloads his doubts and fears with his cab driver. As he's spilling his insecurities, the driver offers his words of comfort in Arabic - "Allahu Akbar," roughly meaning God is great. Fittingly enough, the track begins with a church cathedral organ.

A few other songs that caught my ear included "Crack Rock," which examines drug use and inequalities between the police and street dwellers. On "Pink Matter," he manages to touch on lust, views on women, Chinese culture, and the Dragon Ball Z villain Majin Bu all in the course of two short verses. Andre 3000's verse sounds a bit strange here, given the fact that we're used to hearing him over a weird, funky, out there Outkast beat. His laid back Southern drawl, along with the mellow beat might make you wonder if this is even Andre at all.

At 55+ minutes, channel ORANGE's only downfall is that it's a bit unwieldy. Certain songs here, like "Monks" and "Lost" are not necessarily bad songs but they are obviously much less fleshed out than some other cuts here. This is the main downside about Frank composing several deep, fleshed out songs is that it makes it really obvious when he's not trying as hard. Also, John Mayer probably could have been put to better use than being relegated to playing a simple 60 second guitar solo on "White."

It's not a big deal, though, because Frank Ocean has succeeded in crafting a magnum opus that towers over similar albums that lack the subtle nuances, the intricate details, or the ability to set a mood that is seen on channel ORANGE. This may be the album to open up Odd Future to an expanded audience. If nothing else, it's a hell of a how-to book on songwriting in the modern age.

Score: 87.5/100

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