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
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