The Future's Bright: Frank Ocean's Channel Orange Track-by-Track
, July 3rd, 2012 09:34
John Calvert heads along to a London studio for a first listen to the forthcoming album (much anticipated round these parts) from Frank Ocean
In a surreal low-point for music PR the world over, Def Jam describe R&B wonder-kid and card-carrying Odd Future g-man, Frank Ocean, as "impossible to miss, like a panda bear in a pine forest." Exposed mammals aside though, they've got a point. Because ever since Ocean dropped his debut Nostalgia Ultra last January the Louisianan's been a very hard man to ignore. Like a squirrel monkey, dressed as a woman, driving a car, in Bournemouth.
Only 16 months after Nostalgia, Ultra comes the glorious Channel Orange, almost entirely produced entirely by Ocean but with help from close friend Malay, a seasoned writer/producer who lend his services to a wide range of artists from 50 Cent to Big Boi to Killer Mike.
Channel Orange is a staggering step upwards from Nostalgia, an event album in waiting that exceeds all expectations of the singer, who now can sit comfortably alongside the likes of The Weeknd as an R&B prodigy with a very bright future indeed ahead of him. And to think that once upon a time he was just Tyler's mate with the voice. The Odd Future story continues...
'Thinking About You'
Although scaled-up by elegiac strings (a new addition to January's Ocean-previewed version) Channel Orange's surprisingly low-key opener remains a gorgeously private affair. A slow-release torch song the colour of caramel and bathed in low voltage lighting, a buzzing but soothing synth cycle and muffled beats evoke touching and kissing in a velveteen womb. Poised, considered, classy and moving, this is uniquely Frank Ocean.
Telepathically serenading the girl who popped the Ocean cherry, in the motel room of memories Frank talks eternal love, breaking into a sublime Maxwell-esque falsetto that makes a good case for restoring the style to contemporary mainstream R&'B. Neither Swingbeat-unctuous or the vacuous mew of a soloing boyband-er, his angelic register is just pure, soul-scraping feeling.
Seeing that this is indie R&B, for the most part on Channel Orange love is innocent and born under the high school bleachers. Sure they fucked, but Frank talks in respectful euphemisms. The actual act he calls 'the heaven', or, in the style of Odd Future's Super 3 mixtapes - a spin on a fighter jet.
'Cloud-rap' by any other name, Channel Orange's most hipster cut plies a Main Attrakionz-esque mix of chillwave and wet-look 80s, before kicking it up a notch for a vintage funk jam, 70s style. Like aquiline porn-soul melting from a warped vinyl, Ocean's honeyed tenor syncs with the lusty bass beats that protrude from desaturated washes of strings and wind-chime. Recounting his sexploits, as Frank "reaches for the nipple" his vocals cascade down chordal grades in quick succession, like saucy grunts punctuating an orgasmic exhalation. Effortless and virtuoso.
'Sweet Life' is big. Really big. Like R.Kelly 'I Believe I Can Fly' big. Like Superman eating a super hotdog while fighting King Kong while...ok you get the picture. If you were looking around for a high concept pitch-style descriptor, with its synth brass and Philly soul strings you might call it 'Stevie Wonder meets N.E.R.D in space'. But then that would be too simplistic a definition for the multifaceted, resolutely accomplished 'Sweet Thing'. If Nostalgia, Ultra was all samples and re-voiced songs, Channel Orange is a musicianly affair, and 'Sweet Thing' its flagship brand.
Moving between smooth jazz-funk and a-cappella breakdowns, or massive synth-stoked choruses and Bond-style credits scoring, throughout Frank seems hell-bent on rolling out his best vocal moves. In fact, the whole Busby Berkely-esque pomposity of it all sounds like Ocean's way of letting us know he's arrived.
'Super Rich Kids (ft. Earl Sweatshirt)'
In which you're like "Fuck Frank, Earl's back!" Only, listen hard or you might miss him. That's the little punk right there, with the deep gruff voice and the sanguine, steady, reserved flow. That's right. Where's the phonetic pyros, the inspired swearing, the sociopathic verve? This Brett Easton Ellis-esque bonfire of the IVY-leaguers is perfect material for the horror-damaged T.V. Baby. Instead, Holy Slim Shady, he's singing harmonies. And the boy did grow to be a man.
Suggestive of the monotonous slog of trust fund ennui, a stomping piano and the steady smack of kickdrum anchors the ghostly crowd noise from a vast débutantes ball, as the synths quiver both nauseously and as subtly as candle-smoke in a floor draft.
Reminiscent of the austere, linear stylings of a Young Money production, there's ample space for Frank and Earl to play their respective characters: Frank the leisured dandy and Earl his sneering conscience. "She rubs my back three times a day" sings Ocean with the maximum measure of self-satisfaction "Too many white kids, too many white lines" counters a menacing Earl. Their chemistry is perfect.
'Pilot Jones' is Channel Orange's most interesting track. Not to mention it's most listenable. Another flying-as-love metaphor, this airy and translucent cut is, like 'Sierra Leone', a key reference point for defining 'the nu-skool of R&B'. Ever so slightly indie-twee, Ocean's charmingly double-tracked vocals, the finger-clicks and a flute-like beat suggest a type of childhood regression (and suffice to say, the fantasy of flying as girlfriend and boyfriend is nothing if not child-like). It's escapist, magical-realist even - a kid's watercolour painting or a daydream, perversely made all the more poignant by the massive bass smears. Not that it's child's play in the technical stakes - avant beat-patterns and refracted effects conjure a mixture of Boards Of Canada and something like Cannibal Ox's 'Iron Galaxy', but disarranged behind the fumes of a sugar fire.
However it's the manner in which texture is used that separates post-Drake R&B from the genre's past. Instead of pristine, sexual and sartorial, 'Pilot Jones's production is impressionist, smudged and blanketing. Which is to say, texture is used as a story-telling device in itself, a kind of visual aid, rather than a mere mood setter.
Aside from its earth-shaking breakbeat, 'Crack Rock' is Channel Orange's one misfire, thwarted by rigid arrangements and its jarring non-sequitur of a chorus (out of nowhere Ocean barks the title twice, repeats the act, and that's it). It's a shame, seeing that it's also the album's most overtly political cut, with Ocean criticizing the government for ignoring the soaring rate of crack-related deaths "Don't no one hear the sound of another one hitting the ground." Even still, by aiming for terse, aggravated passion, Ocean freezes the liquid physics of his own song-writing style.
Encompassing a multitude of suites and a kaleidoscope of moods and tones, from vainglorious to melancholic, let's call the restlessly innovative, 10-minute long 'Pyramids' the 'Paranoid Android' of R&B. Or alternatively, in its storytelling scope, Dylan's 'The Hurricane' for the Drake generation. A little structurally ramshackle though never erratic, it's the type of massive album centrepiece that was inconceivable before The Dream's stadium-R&B reinvented the genre as a mythological epic. More is more.
Documenting a day in the life of a lonely casino waitress, 'Pyramids' kicks off with a sun-shower of choral Clams Casino-esque production, followed by a latino-tinged Ocean singing over reversed bass before what can only be described as Balearic pop-trance synths prime a strutting disco beat. Minutes go by until electrotech-style Moog precipitates a breakdown of unusual beauty - like Vangelis-with-the-colours-running paired with a star-trekking sequencer line. Above, in subtle and vaguely futuristic autotune, Ocean repeats the refrain "She's working at the The Pyramid / tonight" with heard-rending empathy. The boy's got soul, and a heart to match. To finish, mute trumpet channels LA noir, until the kindly mutterings of synthetically treated guitar spirits us into the dark of the night. It's rare that R&B takes you on a journey, or better yet, transports you to less earthly realms, as 'Pyramid' is able to do... but R&B it remains.
The perfect pick-me-up after 'Pyramid's heavy gravitas, the fresh and snappy 'Lost' is also, without a doubt, the highlight of the album. A bouncy indie-rock rhythm and chicken-scratch guitar propels a buoyant Frank, as he takes to the road in the hope of getting well and truly lost in sunny California. Flowing atop a narcotic bass melody and a trio of harmonising vocalists, the choruses eventually pan back for a coda of whistling synths and ELO-esque keys, making for the perfect finish to a pop single that the Justin Bieber publishing Ocean can finally call his own. It's also a reminder that, for all their greyscale suburban nihilism, Odd Future are a Californian act. And just like The Bryds and The Beach Boys they can be influenced by their sunny surroundings. There are countless references to the beach and the ocean throughout Channel Orange.
After a serviceable interlude featuring John Mayer on guitar (strange choice, Frank,) Channel Orange is back on air and reborn dirty. With a lot of knowing winks, Ocean plays the sex machine over synth-whirling, cacophonous funk – all crazy bass runs, grandstanding lounge piano and crash cymbal - resembling The Internet trashing their practice room. He then goes on to detail what you might call 'the perks of the job', one of those being "An indian girl with a British accent / [who] likes to fuck the boys in the band". Apparently she's really good at "riding" him "without using her hands" to steady the boat. I think the word is 'swag'.
The first track from Channel Orange's faintly bizarre final act, the soul-searching 'Bad Religion' begins with sad, Procol Haram organ, which then gives way to flourishes of Beatles-ian strings before a crotch-holding scream jumps out, kickstarting Ocean's vaguely distraught vocal performance. The story he tells is a strange one, the Cali-kid seeking solace in the company of a stranger - his taxi driver. As they travel the city at dawn the singer either laments his lack of faith or voices his distrust in organised religion, though it's unclear which. To complicate matters further, there are already claims in the American press that the "divine love" Ocean makes reference to is the one that dare not speak its name. Although more on that below.
'Pink Matter (Ft Andre 3000)'
A great rap turn from Mr 3000. Like Earl he relaxes his hyperkinetic style so it aligns with Ocean's languid music - loping a bit of the Andre-kitsch off the sides and slowing the flow. The end product sounds like a coked-up Snoop Dog - all g-funk sleazy but also robotically telegraphic in the afro-futurist style we've become accustomed to from the iconic space-pimp.
It's hard to know what to make of 'Forrest Gump'. Presenting Ocean's memories of a boy he once knew, with sweetly strummed guitar and skipping rope lilt shunted against Ocean's desirous vocals the impression you get is of adolescent love and, well, of chances missed. There's a homoerotic undertone to lyrics like "Forest, I'm nervous" or "You're running on my mind boy," while smuggled in between references to the titular simpleton there's something remarkably sexual about the line "my fingertips and my lips are burning, on this cigarette" That said: "You're so buff and strong" suggests a bit of tongue-in-cheek prank-playing. We'll never know. In the coda Ocean whistles cutely as he retreats into the sunset, secrets safely stored.