Christopher “Frank Ocean” Breaux is a poet. He’s created an uncommon type of music that is nothing less than dope composition that is on some fly ‘ish. It soars, literally, above the normal contemporary musical sound that traffic the airwaves.
And Ocean’s “channel ORANGE” is a musical chapbook of thought colored in provocative and affecting hues. While he doesn’t offer much vocal dynamism on his new album, he does offer something that is lacking in the overwhelmingly unimaginative fast-selling pop-rock-and-drop-it music-scape dominating radio today, namely, words that move the listener to dance and ponder. It should be no surprise that he is a talented lyricist, however. It was Ocean, after all, who wrote the moving and popular ballad, “I Miss You,” for Beyoncé.
Ocean offers deeply emotional tracks that are staggering. Some of his songs move the body and others may stop listeners from snapping fingers and nodding heads altogether as they journey into the depths of tough beats laced with social commentary and symbolism.
“channel ORANGE” opens with a hurried 46-second opening appropriately titled, “Start.” “Start” ends as quickly as it begins. Nothing overly brilliant occurs in the intro, but listeners are transported swiftly into Ocean’s and Shea Taylor’s “Thinkin Bout You,” which is an R&B track that is Usher-esque. Ocean comfortably crescendos while singing the hook where he repeats the smart refrain, “Or do you not think so far ahead / Cause I been thinking ’bout forever, ooh.”
Like “Start” and “Fertilizer,” the two brief tracks which book-end “Thinkin Bout You,” and the transitory “Sierra Leone,” the first few tracks on the album feel more like a poet’s pre-writing exercise. By track 4, Ocean has yet to come upon the right mix of blazing red and mellow yellow musical tints to produce his album’s signature fire-orange aesthetic.
But Ocean’s warm up prepares listeners for an encounter for the feel-good soul track, “Sweet Life” that ain’t really about a life that is sweet. Ocean’s “Sweet Life,” which is more bitter than saccharine, explores the ironic interplay of perception and reality. “Sweet Life” centers on the contrast between one’s class and geographical location and the realities of both when they happen to be everything but charming.
The best song wasn’t the single, but you weren’t either
Livin’ in Ladera Heights, the Black Beverly Hills
Domesticated paradise, palm trees and pools
The water’s blue, swallow the pill
Keepin’ it surreal, whatever you like
Whatever feels good, whatever takes you mountain high
Keepin’ it surreal, not sugar-free
My TV ain’t HD, that’s too real
Ocean ends with a forewarning refrain that seems as if it were ripped from a page of Stevie Wonder’s scrapbook (think “Living for the City”) when he sings:
And the water, is exactly what I wanted
It’s everything I thought it would be (Thought it would be)
But this neighborhood is gettin’ trippier every day
The neighborhood is goin’ ape sh*t crazy.
If you don’t listen close enough you might not be able to discern Ocean from Musiq, whose sounds is conjured in this track. Unlike Musiq, who sings about quaint love and friendship, Ocean takes the listener in a direction other than the romantic neo-type of soul in “Super Rich Kids” and “Crack Rock.” In “Super Rich Kids” Ocean sings:
The market’s down like 60 stories
And some don’t end the way they should
My silver spoon has fed me good
A million one, a million cash
Close my eyes and feel the crash
His critique of social and economic forces, lightly colored with metaphor, swerve throughout several of his songs. He uses repetition—of themes, words, and sounds—to make a point. For example, in “Crack Rock” listeners may not realize that we, too, are implicated in his charge that “no one hears the sound” of violence and violation happening in the USA when he sings:
My brother get popped
And don’t no one hear the sound
Don’t no one hear the rounds
Don’t no one hear the shells
Don’t no one hear a sound
Don’t no one disturb the peace for riot
Don’t no one disrupt nirvana
Don’t no one wanna blow the high
Indeed, listeners may be too busy swaying their heads, bouncing their shoulders, and snapping fingers while Ocean sings a refrain like a gospel artist rocking out at the end of organ-driven vamp.
Unlike some tracks attempting to tell the “good news,” Ocean doesn’t shy away from singing about sometimes unmentionable topics, like sex work. In the 9 minute 53 second track, “Pyramid,” which scholar and cultural critic Tavia Nyong’o describes as “an afrofabulation of ancient Egypt and postmodern Las Vegas, centered on a woman dressing for her job as a stripper, while her man looks on” and “the artistic showpiece of the album.” “Pyramid,” without doubt, demonstrates the power of Ocean’s poetic genius. The lyrics and the sounds move between Egypt and Las Vegas…between techno-soul and R&B…between antiquity and present times…between life and death…between third person account and first person narrative. Nyong’o is correct in naming Janelle Monae as a contemporary artist that gets closest to Ocean’s style here—both aren’t afraid to depart the normal.
The third section of “channel ORANGE,” which includes the shorter tracks “Lost,” “White,” “Monks,” “Bad Religion,” and “Pink Matter” are a combination of various sounds. “Lost” could have easily appeared on—with more vocal stylizing and musical sophistication, of course—Prince’s 1985 album, “Around the World in a Day.” Fans might be surprised to hear a John Mayer guitar solo a few tracks behind “Pyramids,” but it seems satirical that Mayer, dubbed a misogynist by some and the “accidental racist” by comedian Kumail Nanjiani, plays (beautifully) on an instrumental ironically titled, “White.” “Monk” and “Bad Religion,” two tracks illuminating elements of religion, and “Forest Gump” are meditations on sex (with girl groupies) and love (possibly with an intimate him). The tracks, not unlike many of the others on the album are short, but fans will surely give a close listen to the two tracks with Ocean’s own context in mind. Folk will want to know if these tracks are about Ocean’s sex/love life given his recent disclosure that he loved a man when he was 19. Yet, as poet A. E. Housman once wrote, “Even when poetry has a meaning, as it usually has, it may be inadvisable to draw it out… Perfect understanding will sometimes almost extinguish pleasure.”
“channel ORANGE” is a pleasurable piece of musical artistry colored in fire-orange. Its fire, beauty, and intensity need not be extinguished by our desires to make Ocean fit our fantasies as an artist. He soars in this project.