Album review: Frank Ocean, Channel Orange

The young alt-R&B sensation follows a surprising revelation with a strangely cryptic new LP.

0

Comments

Add +

Time Out Ratings

<strong>Rating: </strong>3/5
Frank Ocean, Channel Orange

Frank Ocean, Channel Orange

Frank Ocean was everywhere in 2011. Before his 24th birthday last October, the Odd Future–affiliated crooner had guested on two very different conversation-dominating hip-hop blockbusters—Tyler, the Creator’s Goblin and Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch the Throne—issued his own remarkable debut, Nostalgia, Ultra; and played his first ever solo shows. Yet despite such ubiquity, it was easy to feel tantalized by the former Christopher Breaux. He’d proved he could sing the hell out of a hook (“No Church in the Wild”) and generate his own raw, riveting hits (“Swim Good,” “Novacane”). But given the wealth of borrowed material on Nostalgia, Ultra—covers and reworkings of Coldplay, the Eagles and others—it still seemed like Ocean had yet to really show his hand.


That all changes with Channel Orange, a generous helping of new originals, mediated only by blink-and-miss-’em cameos from Earl Sweatshirt, John Mayer and Andre 3000. Ocean’s clearly hoping to make a big statement with this solid hour of cryptic prog-soul, which comes on the heels of a Tumblr dispatch chronicling a wrenching episode of unrequited homosexual desire in his past.


But strangely, Channel Orange itself lacks the poignancy of that public journal entry. Having lifted the veil, Ocean replaces it here with a thicker and even more obfuscating one. The recently issued single “Pyramids,” a nine-minute funk suite that reimagines Cleopatra as an exotic dancer, sets the tone for the album. The songs are almost uniformly weird—“You run my mind, boy,” Ocean sings on the playful lark “Forrest Gump,” while on “Monks,” he describes “Monks in the mosh pit / A stage-diving Dalai Lama,” as session drummer Matt Chamberlain drops scenery-chewing fills—and strangely kitschy. The lush slinkiness of “Sweet Life,” for example, scans as parody, a sonic illustration of the gauche affluence Ocean sends up in the lyrics.


But aside from two extraordinary lovelorn ballads, “Thinkin Bout You” and “Bad Religion,” the album is surprisingly skimpy on the soul-baring intimacy that made Nostalgia, Ultra so magical. We’ll have to wait until next time to see if this shy antistar will let us get a good, long look at him; for now, Channel Orange feels evasive—a sprawling head-scratcher of a stopgap.—Hank Shteamer


Frank Ocean plays Terminal 5 July 26.


[Editor's note: Please see here for a subsequent Channel Orange review, which ran in the print version of TONY, that supersedes this first-day impression.]



Follow Hank Shteamer on Twitter: @DarkForcesSwing

Buy Channel Orange on iTunes

You might also like
See more in Music

Users say

2 comments
GMB
GMB

I actually think this review is really unfair. Aren't you holding Frank Ocean to a standard that he invented himself -- in a mere Tumblr post, no less? There's no denying that his NotePad confessional was astronomically well-written, but to ask Frank Ocean to bear more of his soul on this album is both unfair and blind to what's actually here. If "Thinking About You" had been an unfamiliar track, it would have sated the the heart-bearing beats you were craving, but because it was already well known, it feels like filler. I agree that "Swim Good" augurs for additional depth in his future songwriting, but the ironies within "Sweet Life" are far harder to express than mere broken hearts, and the fact that a 24 year old can write with this level of maturity is astounding. I don't hear kitch here; I do hear experimentation. Even the "Bennie and the Jets" chords in "Super Rich Kids" are a knowing, intelligent sonic reference, layered with Mary Blige to remind us that the trappings of wealth can obscure the search for a real love, even masking a suicidal tendency. This tracks aren't afraid of deep waters, and its unfair to say that unrequited love should be the only topics he gets to explore. Frank Ocean's best album may still be forthcoming, but this -- by any reasonable measure -- is a bold, creative, brave debut.