If you’re even casually plugged in to the pop world, you already know that Frank Ocean is a trending topic, and that his debut LP, Channel Orange, has emerged as 2012’s mightiest critical juggernaut. As substantial as the album is—a solid hour of fresh material from an artist with little more than a masterpiece of a mixtape, 2011’s Nostalgia, Ultra, and starry cameos on high-profile records by Tyler, the Creator, and the Jay-Z–Kanye duo to his name—it’s been tough to get a clear look at it, for one simple reason: Days before Channel Orange’s release, the 24-year-old crooner-songwriter, born Christopher Breaux, dropped a bombshell of a Tumblr post, a moving journal entry detailing a thorny episode of same-sex love in his past. Understandably, early reviews of Ocean’s record fixated on the revelation, treating it like a skeleton key that could unlock every last secret on this sprawling, sometimes frustrating, often fascinating album. But though Ocean’s candor may have won him an avalanche of attention, it has also invited listeners to gloss over the depth and surreality of his opus.
Channel Orange does contain one straightforward autobiographical track, “Bad Religion,” a simultaneously shattering and uplifting cautionary tale about romantic delusion. But the song feels like an island of direct self-expression in a sea of elliptical gestures. Channel Orange is all over the place, ricocheting wildly from style to style, feeling to feeling. Ocean shows off his radio-ready R&B prowess right at the top with the jewellike slow jam “Thinkin Bout You,” before veering into tongue-in-cheek satire on tracks such as “Super Rich Kids,” a sardonic strut featuring a deliciously mush-mouthed guest verse from Ocean’s Odd Future cohort Earl Sweatshirt. And what to make of “Pyramids,” a nearly 10-minute prog-funk head trip that reimagines Cleopatra as an exotic dancer? Or “White,” an ultrasmooth instrumental-soul interlude, very likely delivered with a knowing wink, built around a baby-making guitar solo from noted lothario John Mayer?
Once the record winds its way to the final proper song, “Forrest Gump”—a playful lark that samples cheerleaders and finds Ocean confessing to the title character, “You run my mind, boy”—it’s clear that the best approach to Channel Orange is to simply revel in its lush, head-spinning eclecticism. Not everything sticks: “Monks,” a profane piece of groove-driven sass, is among a handful of songs that feel slight and undercooked. But head-scratchers like these only reinforce an overarching quality of giddy experimentalism, a sensation that trumps any weighty psychological baggage that critics, or even Ocean himself, might try to hang on the album. The hoopla surrounding the Tumblr post was just a fast-food sound bite; Channel Orange is a lavish molecular-gastronomy-style riddle for the ears.—Hank Shteamer
Frank Ocean plays Terminal 5 Thu 26.
[Editor's note: This review supercedes and elaborates upon a first-day impression of Channel Orange, available here.]
Follow Hank Shteamer on Twitter: @DarkForcesSwing
Buy Channel Orange on iTunes
You might also like
See more in Music