Frank Ocean - channel ORANGE

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    It may seem like old news already but it was just over a month ago that singer/songwriter Frank Ocean announced to the world, including his very conservative hip hop world, his unrequited first love for a boy and rode the subsequent publicity all the way to #1 on the iTunes and #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts, respectively. Yet, in the midst of all this free global publicity and media hoopla, for most folks over 35 there was often this collective question in the air: Who is Frank Ocean and why should we care that he’s come out as bisexual? A bigger question arose in the shadow of international cable news outfit, CNN, devoting nearly a full five minutes of airtime to the Ocean coming out story—an eternity in television: “yeah, but is the album any good?” This is especially important since most of these stories described Ocean as a hip hop artist, and for some R&B soul traditionalists it meant Frank Ocean was never going to be the protein on their menu, gay or not.

    So, is the album and the media darling (for now) any good for the average soul listener not reared on Rihanna and Big Sean?

    Well, yes and no. Ocean’s official debut album, channel ORANGE has been likened to Lauryn Hill’s The MisEducation of Lauryn Hill. I wouldn’t go that far. For one, Hill’s album is more uplifting and confrontational in its morality tales of female empowerment and its emotive displays of romantic love, whereas Ocean often writes coolly observational songs as if penning vignettes for a literary audience at Brown. Like Hill’s magnum opus, channel ORANGE does rely heavily on the conversational singer’s strength as a songwriter. As a 24-year old lyricist, Ocean is among the best his generation has to offer in any genre, which is why folks of all stripes have taken to the Odd Future camp member’s signature brand of hip hop soul. Branded alternative hip hop, a man who plays loose and fancy free with song structure and melody lines, Frank Ocean sings or rather sing-talks more than spits any rhymes.

    In his choice of subject matter, the poetic hip hop singer does give himself the same permissions as a Jim Morrison or the latter years of The Beatles to not always be direct in in his lyrics and to be as stark in his gray-tinged lens of the world. Longing, bleak terrains, and harsh realism are sometimes brushed in beautiful language, which only magnifies some of the barren or broken lives Ocean paints. Dark tales of drug abuse get a whirl in “Crack Rock,” “Pilot Jones” and “Lost” against ironic, highly melodic midtempo grooves that tell the other side of the drug game from the victims and the relationships they experience. Taking on the role of pimp as a self-delusional lover, Ocean—sounding like Prince—plays poet with obscure metaphorical allusions on electro-soul songs like “Pyramids” that expose the underbelly of strippers and sex workers in lush word play that is more reverential to its subject than profane or judgmental. Here is a young man who has seen much with an elder’s eye and a compassionate pen.

    As the in-demand writer of songs for stars like Brandy, Beyonce, John Legend, Justin Beiber, Brandy, and even Kanye West and Jay-Z on their Watch The Throne project, Ocean reveals his more upscale associations and upper crust lifestyle in a song like “Super Rich Kids,” one of the project’s best. Unlike much of hip hop and Bravo reality TV, Ocean is unromantically steely-eyed about the emotionally bankrupt lives of some born into privilege: “too many bottles of this wine we can’t pronounce/too many bowls of that green/no lucky charms/the maids come around too much/parents ain’t around enough/too many joy rides in daddy’s jaguar/too many white lies & white lines/super rich kids with nothing but loose ends/super rich kids with nothing but fake friends.” While “Super Rich Kids” has an unusual structure with a bassline and themes that clearly references Elton John’s “Bennie & the Jets,” its sister, “Sweet Life,” is almost rhapsodic in its highly commercial melody lines and bright sunshine feel but it too is damning with faint praise those living the “good life.” As someone reared in far more humble circumstances in Long Beach, CA and New Orleans, Christopher “Lonny” Breaux aka Frank Ocean’s read of the jet set is a kin to Nick in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, if occasionally less sympathetic. With the groupie sex and mosh pit divers of the fictionalized but potentially autobiographical “Monks,” Ocean proves he's not allergic to being introspective in his readings about his own lifestyle as an A-list musician among the rich and famous.  

    The writer’s take on love is far less cool. It is also when he sings about love as on “Sweet Life” and “Bad Religion” that Ocean is most likely to stretch vocally, demonstrating considerable growth in his limited second tenor-baritone range since the release of his 2011 mixtape, Nostalgia, Ultra. Not one for gospel runs or jazz rifts, Ocean is usually more conversational in his approach to his lyrics as with “Thinking About You,” but even here Ocean climbs into his falsetto for the more vulnerable moments of the single’s catchy hook. Against the cathedral chords of “Bad Religion,” Ocean foreshadows the letter that he shared on Tumblr that made him famous overnight in Middle America. Breaking the last R&B and hip hop taboo in “Bad Religion,” Ocean expresses an unrequited love and heartbreak for a man that transcends sexuality to become a testimony that anyone who’s ever known the pain of loving someone who plays with your emotions and adds insult to injury by not loving you back will know all about: “unrequited love to me it’s nothing but a one man cult/& cyanide in my styrofoam cup/I could never make him love me/never make him love me/no no/it’s a bad religion/to be in love with/someone who could never love you/only bad only bad religion/could have me feeling the way I do. “

    Music lovers who have not kept current with the nonchalant coarseness of some of the language modern R&B and hip hop soul has embraced in recent years (with the neo-realism of artists like Drake) may be caught off-guard by some of the street language and stark word choices that rear up from time to time. In Ocean’s case, the profane usage is never gratuitous and generally used in service of a unique voice in a genre that too often spurns unique voices. In the level of his storytelling artistry and fearlessness at such an early age in both life and career, Frank Ocean proves an important figure whose work is worth spending some time with. Other singers, often far better vocal technicians than Ocean, have proven inspired by his Beat poet toned voice, as dozens of YouTube covers of “Swim Good,” “Novacane,” “We All Try” and the like from the Nostalgia/Ultra mixtape and his less well known project, The Lonny Breaux Collection, illustrate that Ocean’s life on stage has legs. Still, Ocean’s world is not for the faint of heart or those looking for a traditional view of life and love in their R&B. It is for those who miss the bold art that once was at the heart of both hip hop and R&B, no matter what their age. Highly Recommended.

    By L. Michael Gipson