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Album Review: Frank Ocean - 'Channel Orange'

A Fresh Perspective

About.com Rating 4 Star Rating

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In the days prior to Frank Ocean releasing his debut album, Channel Orange, his musical career was overshadowed by an open letter he posted online revealing that the first love of his life had been a man. But now that the shockwaves have subsided, the attention is back to being where it should be: on the music. And Channel Orange, which was released digitally July 10, 2012 and will be available in physical stores July 17, is a very solid album. It's strongest attribute is Ocean's knack for uniquely creative lyrical narratives. He brings a fresh perspective to the music world that's much needed these days, particularly within the R&B genre, which is currently overloaded with cliched, cookie cutter and copycat vocalists.

Emotionally Vulnerable

One of the better examples of Frank Ocean's creativity as a songwriter is the opening lines of album's first full song, "Thinkin' Bout You," where he sings: "A tornado flew around my room before you came, excuse the mess it made/It usually doesn't rain in Southern California, much like Arizona/My eyes don't shed tears, but boy they bawl when I'm thinkin' 'bout you." With those words, Ocean not only manages to reveal his knack for creative excuses, but exposes himself as an emotionally vulnerable man (the "rain" he sings about is his tears), plus pays tribute to the classic song "It Never Rains in Southern California." Like most of his lyrics, they seem surface deep at first and it can take repeated listenings of the full song sometimes to actually get the true meaning because of the various metaphors and similes utilized.
Another thing the song does is establish an underlying, ongoing theme that recurs at various points throughout the album: life and living in the greater Los Angeles area. The song that most overtly pushes the theme is "Sweet Life," a tale about a rich kid who's been so insulated and spoiled so much while growing up in the L.A. neighborhood of Ladera Heights -- aka "the black Beverly Hills" -- that they have no curiosity about anything outside their little bubble. Or as Frank rhetorically puts it in the song: "You've had a landscaper and a housekeeper since you were born, the sunshine always kept you warm/So why see the world when you've got the beach?"

Unrequited Love

Ocean, who moved to Los Angeles from New Orleans in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina, again delves into the topic of Southern California's wealthy on "Super Rich Kids," where he and another future legend, rapper Earl Sweatshirt, vividly detail the life of a well-off latchkey kid: "Too many joyrides in Daddy's Jaguar, too many white lies and white lines, super rich kids with nothin' but loose ends, super rich kids with nothin' but fake friends."
For those curious, Ocean does explore love and romance on numerous Channel Orange songs, but none are particularly explicit, and on just two -- "Bad Religion" and "Forrest Gump" -- does he refer to a romantic interest as a "he." On "Bad Religion," Ocean sings of unrequited love and accompanying guilt: "I can never make him love me," he mournfully croons. "Only a bad religion would have me feel the way I do." And on the playfully sensual "Forrest Gump," Ocean tastefully sings about lusting after a rugged yet gentle athlete whom he's given a pet nickname: "Forrest Gump you run my mind boy, runnin' on my mind, boy," he sings. But interestingly, the most involved song about relationships and romance -- if it can even be called that -- is "Pyramids," a 10-minute, time-spanning opus whose first half takes place in ancient Egypt, while the second is set in a modern-day hotel room.
Overall, not every track on Channel Orange works -- the cluttered track "Monks" most notably, which sounds like a glorified demo -- but this is an album definitely worth picking up. Although some may find it a difficult listen at first because it's complex narratives can be hard to digest and are much different from the overly simplistic R&B that's typically spoon-fed to the masses these days, repeated listening helps you understand the full picture. And when it comes to the big picture, Channel Orange could very well go down as one of the best, most important R&B albums of not only of the year, but of the entire decade.

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