Frontier Psychiatrist

So Smooth: A Review of Frank Ocean, Channel Orange

Posted on: July 10, 2012

Frank Ocean, Channel Orange

Today, Frank Ocean dropped Channel Orange, his highly anticipated and highly hyped major label debut and follow-up to the mixtape Nostalgia ULTRA, which was #4 on our Top 50 albums of 2011. Ideally, I’d digest this record for a week before writing a review. But with Channel Orange trending on Twitter today and every major and minor media outlet dissecting the album (and Ocean’s recent announcement about a homosexual relationship) time seems of the essence.

How smooth is Ocean? He’s so smooth that one year after dropping an ostensibly heterosexual panty-dropper of a record, he declares that his first true love was a man.  He’s so smooth that his guest verse on the Jay-Z/Kanye West song “No Church in the Wild” is the featured slice on the trailer for the new Hollywood version of  The Great Gatsby. (HOV and Yeezy should watch their thrones). He’s so smooth that he’s written songs for Beyonce and Bieber, so smooth that when honey-voiced heartthrob John Mayer appears on Channel Orange, he doesn’t even sing. He’s so smooth that on his new song “Forrest Gump,” he sings from the point of view of Jenny –and it’s not cheesy.  If Ocean were an ocean, he’d be the Pacific Ocean, his protean voice and whipped cream slow jams the epitome of calm and tranquility.

On Nostalgia, Ocean adapted pop hits wholesale, including The Eagles’ “Hotel California,” MGMT’s “Electric Feel,” and Coldplay’s “Strawberry Swing.” On Channel Orange, the sampling is more subtle: one song quotes Mary J. Blige’s “Real Love,” another borrows the organ sound and chord changes from Bob Marley’s “No Woman No Cry.” While Ocean sometimes sounds like Prince, Stevie Wonder, and Curtis Mayfield, his voice is now more distinctly his own. And after a stint as a collaborator for rap royalty, Ocean now has enough cred to get his own guests: Mayer, who plays guitar on the instrumental “Light,” Earl Sweatshirt of Odd Future, the L.A. hip-hop collective from which Ocean sprung, and Outkast’s Andre 3000, who rapid-fire raps on “Pink Matter.” If Nostalgia pointed to a promising new talent, Channel Orange is that talent coming into its own.

After an opening instrumental, Channel Orange properly starts with the slow jam “Thinkin ‘Bout You” (#5 on our Top 50 songs of 2011). Here Ocean switches seamlessly from his rich rapping voice to a soaring falsetto over minimalist beats, synth swirls, and a splash of guitar. Ocean is not only a sweet talker but also a class warrior with a social conscience. On “Sweet Life,” he takes privileged Southern Californians to task: “You’ve had a landscaper/and a housekeeper/Since you were born/The star-shine always kept you warm/So why see the world/When you’ve got the beach?” Ironically, the soft rock electric piano and farty funk bass groove sound like Steely Dan, the kings of Yacht Rock. Similarly, “Super Rich Kids” update of Steely Dan’s “Show Business Kids,” Ocean and Sweatshirt (does that sound strange?) takes turns at the same target: “Too many bottles of this wine we can’t pronounce/Too many bowls of that green/No Lucky Charms/Maids come around too much/Parents ain’t around enough.” In a hip-hop universe where cash is often king, it’s a novel and refreshing stance.  While  “Crack Rock” is not one of the album’s strongest songs, the lyrics speak to the dangers of drug abuse, as did “Novocane,” one of Nostalgia‘s standout tracks.

When he goes international, however, Ocean’s lyrics are less insightful. “Sierra Leone” makes a facile comparison between a romantic relationship and that country’s troubled history. On “Monks” he sings “African girl/Speaks in  British accent/Likes to f___  boys in pairs/Likes to watch westerns/and ride me without the hands/Show me her passport.” The epic “Pyramids” references Cleopatra and cheetahs.

That said, these lyrics are blips on a mostly stellar record. There’s enough smooth singing and enough gorgeous grooves on Channel Orange to last all summer long. So stop reading about Frank Ocean already and start listening to his music.

Keith Meatto is editor in chief of Frontier Psychiatrist. He’s happy to be writing about music after a stretch writing about movies: Oliver Stone’s Savages, Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom and Seth MacFarlane’s Ted, and the documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry  He still has Nostalgia ULTRA in heavy rotation.

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3 Responses to "So Smooth: A Review of Frank Ocean, Channel Orange"

[…] JULY 10, 2012: CLICK FOR A REVIEW OF CHANNEL ORANGE, FRANK OCEAN'S MAJOR LABEL […]

[…] can be said about this guy that hasn’t already? You already know how greatChannel Orange is and live his voice is just as soulful and […]

[…] chief of Frontier Psychiatrist. His recently reviews include Stewart O’Nan’s novel The Odds and Frank Ocean’s album Channel Orange. He needs more sleep. Share this:ShareEmailTwitterFacebookRedditStumbleUponYahoo BuzzDiggLike […]

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