Album Review : Frank Ocean – Channel ORANGE (Def Jam; 2012)

Frank Ocean – Channel ORANGE (Def Jam; 2012)

By Peter McLoughlin @PeterGownArts

“Ocean demonstrates how a little restraint can go a long way”

At 24 years old, Frank Ocean is in a remarkable position in the American music industry.  Born in New Orleans, Ocean moved to L.A. in 2005 to escape the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.   Since then he has ghost-written songs for Justin Bieber, John Legend and Beyoncé; he joined the hip-hop collective OFWGKTA – also known as Odd Future; and he has released two albums, the first a sophisticated mixtape entitled Nostalgia, ULTRA, and now, his first studio album, the excellent Channel ORANGE.

The album is mellow in tone; mid-tempo R&B dripped in dubstep – it is a technically brilliant, understated production.  Kanye West and Jay Z went for relentless pomp in last year’s disappointing Watch the Throne, yet with Channel Orange, Ocean demonstrates how a little restraint can go a long way.  The album blossoms gradually, beginning with the beautiful “Thinkin’ Bout You”.  There is a tone of calm confidence, a humble quality running throughout the album that succeeds mere cockiness.   Ocean doesn’t need to remind us with every second line that he is great; his songs speak for themselves.

And yet when Ocean cuts loose, as he does at the heart of the album, with the three-song zenith of “Crack Rock”, “Pyramids” and “Lost”, the music is not only evocative, but catchy and dynamic.  The bass-hook that stands as a wordless chorus in “Pyramids” in particular is probably the best sound I have heard this year.  The songs rarely crescendo, but when they do it is invariably a treat to the ears.

The album is thematically full of love, passion, class divides and drug abuse, and Ocean covers these topics with a thoughtfulness and an empathy that most artists in his field are sorely lacking.

Ocean’s voice is gentle and expressive.  When he sings “I’ve been thinkin’ bout forever”, you really believe he is struggling to wrap his head around infinity.  Lines from “Bad Religion” like: “it’s a bad religion/to be in love with/someone who could never love you” stand out; and he shows he has bite in songs like “Crack Rock”: “fuckin’ pig get shot/300 men will search for me/ my brother get [shot]/& don’t no one hear the sound”.  The delicate balance between his lyrics and his vocal intensity is a striking feature of this album.

Frank Ocean still has much to do.  He has been highly productive for a man in his early twenties; but the real task is keeping it up.  He is undoubtedly a talented, innovative artist, but trying to balance that talent with the fame that surrounds it seems to be the classic stumbling block.  On August 13th 2012, he cancelled his scheduled tour of Europe – in which he was due to open for Coldplay at a number of large-scale concerts, (it is rumoured that he lost his voice).  Judging though, if nothing else, from the sincerity and empathy of Ocean’s music, I honestly feel he will learn to manage his ego just fine.  Channel Orange is a wonderful album – one of the best of the year.

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