Frank Ocean knows our dirty little secrets. Beneath our cleverly constructed reality and premeditated status updates, there’s much more than we’re willing to let go. With his deceptively modest debut, Channel Orange, the 24-year-old singer-storyteller unearths those muddy truths, whether it’s dissolving the candy casings of luxury, chronicling the crash after a high or the heartache that inexplicably mooches off love. Everyone’s not happy here. Amplified by his fleeting falsetto and talk-rap narration (our own R&B Morgan Freeman), his anecdotes twist everything wrong about love, sex, drugs, excess and religion into a complicated orgy. There’s religion to cope with loss, splurges to suppress misery, white lines to mask the pain. It’s a story about others, and sometimes him, but mostly you.
Since Frank laid out his sexuality for the world’s prodding, there’s been plenty of talk about the subjects of his lyrics. The letter explains how his unreciprocated love for a male friend inspired his well-received debut project, Nostalgia Ultra, and this one, too. You can hear his tale beautifully in “Thinkin Bout You,” “Bad Religion” and “Forrest Gump.” But for the most part, Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All’s quiet storm is an outsider observing foreigners by viewing it from their side. He’s interested in how and why people embrace vices as fix-its and risk their lives for the sake of pleasure. Through them, he learns himself.
As others have pointed out, he uses a series of vignettes to detail the trappings of wealth (“Sierra Leone,” “Sweet Life,” “Super Rich Kids”), drugs (“Pilot Jones,” “Crack Rock”), sexual appetite (“Pyramids,” “Lost”) and blind faith (“Monks,” “Bad Religion”), all of which intersect. Musically, he leans on rock and funk and Elton John of course, and there’s soul behind his bottomless lyrics—restrained keys and mild drum riffs, Stevie Wonderisms and a little of John Mayer designed to subtly coddle his stories; something that’s just there to fit his plot into. The album’s slow pacing may even test your patience (sorry, “Pink Matter” begs for a skip every time, Andre 3000 greatness and all).
You’ll hear a lot about stories when it comes to Frank. Rightfully. Lots of his songs are formatted like novels, with protagonists, many perspectives and sideline characters: the indifferent taxi driver in “Bad Religion” and the maids in “Super Rich Kids” who wander oblivious to the mischief because, well, “they must don’t care.” Those two, plus “Pilot Jones” (with its “ice-cold” refrain), all kick off with quick prologue set-ups. He’s also skilled at plopping in phrases that flow like free writing sessions: “Domesticated paradise, palm trees and pools”; “Mosh pits and bare chests/Stage-diving sky diver.” It all seems intentional. He probably excelled in English.
Amid the ruin, there’s self-reflection throughout Channel Orange. People have to deal with their choices. Some presumably learn. Others fall in or fold. A song about temptation, “Pilot Jones” sees its main subject succumbing to a dealer-seductress. In the sequel, “Crack Rock,” a druggie, maybe that same crackhead, endures his addiction despite the consequences, like not being able to hold babies: “Your family stopped inviting you to things/Won’t let you hold their infant.” Built into that personal storyline is a larger assessment on the drug trade and police corruption. Frank’s concerned with how we easily remove ourselves from other people’s narratives (“Don’t no one disrupt nirvana/Don’t no one wanna blow the high”). But you can tell he’s got faith in empathy.
Besides the Odd Future ties (and Kanye West and Jay-Z), Frank’s hip-hop sensibilities are blatant. He spits on several tracks—he followed Hov, he said, and wrote all the lyrics to Nostalgia, Ultra in his head. He crafts his songs like puzzles that require multiple readings or visits to rapgenius.com to fathom. It’s hard to label it. And everyone won’t love it. But where else can glass dicks, buttercream silk shirts and a coke white tiger collide. Dissecting it almost seems fruitless. —Clover Hope (@clovito)