Frank Ocean sent waves through the hip hop community last week by declaring he’s not straight in a post on his Tumblr page about unrequited love of a man in his earlier years. The reaction was decidedly split; many lauded Ocean for his courage and bravery, while others were off put by someone in hip hop, a genre marked by braggadocio lyrics about strippers and money and idolizing women, who wasn’t straight like the rest of them. I honestly couldn’t care less. How people put their sexual organs on or into other people’s sexual organs is something I couldn’t give two shits about. The only thing about Frank Ocean I care about is his music, particularly Channel ORANGE, his first studio album, which was released on iTunes on Tuesday a week ahead of the physical copy’s release.
Ocean, real name Christopher (but better known as Lonny) Breaux, is tabbed as the “big brother” by members of Odd Future, and there isn’t a more perfect way to describe him. For one, he’s 24, while most of the other OFWGKTA members can’t legally drink yet. But in another way, Ocean is the Big Brother, the one who is always heard but never seen, who chills in the background seeing everything. He’s the ghost to the demons and monsters (goblins?) of Odd Future, the quiet and sullen crooner surrounded by so many loud and in-your-face rappers in Odd Future.
That contrast between the people he’s surrounded by and his general want to stay out of the limelight made these last two weeks so fascinating. For someone who values solidarity and isolation, how would he stand the limelight after taking such a big risk? And for the large swaths of the public who hadn’t heard any of his music other than his chorus in Jay-Z & Kanye West’s “No Church in the Wild,” how would they react to his first studio album in his own element?
Let’s just say the guy who stands way out in left field most of the time took full advantage of his trip to the plate.
This album starts with an intro that is the same as a Playstation start up screen. How cool is that? From there, however, you’re dragged into twenty thousand different directions, but the lack of cohesion makes for a better listening experience. You’re better served listening to this from start to finish rather than picking out one song in particular. Sonically, no two songs sound the same. From the string section intro to “Thinkin’ Bout You” to the organs in “Bad Religion” to the sparse accompaniment of Ocean’s opening verse and the sudden shift to funk for Andre 3000’s part in “Pink Matter,” it’s clear Ocean brought out every instrument (guitar first and foremost) and tinkered around in the studio.
Andre 3000 brings up another interesting feature of Channel, because along with him, the two other artists brought in to feature are John Mayer and OF wunderkid Earl Sweatshirt. (Tyler, the Creator comes in for the song “Golden Girl,” which will be available on hard copies as a follow up to the last song “End.”) What do these three have in common? Along with being immensely talented (Andre 3000 absolutely shines in Pink Matter), they are all like Ocean: names you hear but don’t see. Mayer has been out of the spotlight for a few years (granted that was forced, as he had surgery to remove a growth near his vocal chords), Andre 3000 only pops in now and then for features and does most of his work behind the scenes producing, and Earl had his infamous hiatus in Samoa at boarding school. All three are aficionados (Earl an early one; he has the talent to become one surely), and all three stay out of the spotlight, exactly like Frank Ocean.
Unfortunately for Ocean, he can’t avoid the spotlight any longer. He gave the world one hell of an album, one that will contend to be the year’s best, and one that will jar the genre of R&B and give it the rocket up the ass it needed. Only time will tell where this stands to its contemporaries, and we can only wait for Ocean to release another album. But for now, let’s let him enjoy the beach while seeing the world in front of him applaud him for a stellar piece of work.
Songs to listen to: Pyramids, Pink Matter, Sweet Life
Fun fact: “Thinkin’ Bout You” was written for R&B singer Bridget Kelly to perform. Ocean took what he wrote, changed some things, and released a demo. Eventually Kelly changed hers to “Thinking About Forever.” Which do you like better?