Frank Ocean: channel ORANGE
- Frank Ocean's official debut, channel ORANGE, has every eye in the room fixed on it, but if the hype is big, it's that organic kind of hype that just grows out of something really good. That's how it feels, anyway. It's a neat way to characterise Frank Ocean too: he's a guy who has his cake and eats it, every time. For instance: he's associated with everything freshly badass about urban music, courtesy of his connections to Oddfuture, but his debut is every bit a Def Jam / Universal release, no actual relation to Oddfuture at all, well, except a breath of ice-cold cool from Earl Sweatshirt, one of a very few, hand-picked guests. Oh, yeah, yeah, and you get a bizarre, disorienting snarl of Tyler too, on a bonus track if you pick up an actual, physical copy of the thing. Ocean is a skillful and interesting writer, one with plenty of practice penning tunes for the likes of John Legend and Justin Bieber before last year's nostalgia, ULTRA mixtape suddenly propelled him into the stratosphere, where he only has to write songs for his good self. On channel ORANGE Ocean often writes multiple layers into his lyrics. Take one of the album's most radio-weaponized tunes: Sweet Life. It's fiendishly deceptive, laying down an archetypal r'n'b ode to diamonds, porsches and gucci and as Frank croons, mango, peaches and lime. The thing is, it's all a diss to rich kids and their blinkered perceptions: 'Why See The World / When You Got The Beach.' It's close to being the opposite of hip hop's hallowed tradition of unashamedly celebrating the almighty dollar dollar bills. He does it again, maybe even more effectively with Earl Sweatshirt on Super Rich Kids. I must admit to being a little amazed at how he can paint this life of decadent wealth, making syrrupy songs out of it, luxuriating in it, really, and then just turn around and say: it's all wrong, I'm completely above it and all I want is real, pure love. He's so damn good he gets away with it. The same kind of twisted magic is at work on any of the number of the ghetto-life, drug-joints he lays down, too. Pilot Jones puts a story of meth-fueled relationship dysfunction to one of the purest and most affecting r'n'b vocals I've ever heard: 'You always smoking in the house / What if my mother comes over? / You can't get up and get a job / Cause this little hustle's getting you by / You're the dealer and the stoner / With the sweetest kiss I've ever known.' It makes moving to the projects and crying all day on a dirty mattress seem like just about the most romantic thing ever; Aloe Blacc eat your heart out. Frank is so damn convincing in everything he sings he nearly had me believing that he was a refugee from Sierra Leone on one track; he's from New Orleans actually, big kidder.
There's still more unexpected duplicity. For all that there are some numbers on here which will bang on mainstream radio, the production work for channel ORANGE is full of the loose ends, sparse emptiness, snatches of fuzz and beats spinning off into nothingness, the sort of stuff the scrappy new generation of hip hop kids have been running so hungrily with. Finally, as everybody now knows, Frank even gets to admit to being gay, or bi, or something like that, in the, frankly, ultra-homophobic world of urban music and have everyone from Russel Simmons to Fifty-Cent to Tyler The Creator tell him he's awesome. Well, nearly everyone; Ne-Yo dissed him, if only by saying he was a poser. Well, I say the hell with you, Ne-Yo, that's one thing that Frank deserves to get away with and it shames the fans out there that he has to be so ludicrously brave to try. For all his deceptive cleverness, underneath it all, Frank has real heart and, obviously, the talent to forge it into love tunes with all the beauty and pain that can be brought to r'n'b. It's right there in the album's opener, Thinkin Bout You, a semi-rapped slice of unrequited love that is just-a-bit unbelievably good. What Frank Ocean deserves is to conquer the world and I won't be even half-surprised when he does.
- Chris Cobcroft.