[review] Frank Ocean // Channel Orange

I’ve been thinking a lot about Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange over the past week; I’ve been listening to it quite often, and I’ve been trying to place it in some wider context. On the one hand, I think it’s admirable that Ocean’s recently professed sexuality makes the album a more interesting listen since the pronouns he uses aren’t confined to one gender or the other over the course of the album. On the other hand, it kind of irks me that something so personal was used as what seems to be a publicity stunt.

(Aside 1: I haven’t had the struggle with my own sexuality that Ocean experienced, so it’s not my place to criticize how he went about revealing that detail of his life.)

(Aside 2: I’m looking forward to the day when it won’t be necessary for individuals to feel the need to reveal which gender(s) they are attracted to in some grand fashion. In fact, I think it would be a neat twist to have an artist make music that’s overtly gay-friendly, and then have him or her announce that s/he is a heterosexual.)

But beyond the secondary information that surrounds Channel Orange – Ocean’s sexuality, the album’s release early on iTunes, its pulling from Target shelves – the real story is the music it contains. At this point, it’s been lauded as the Album of the Year, the best R ‘n’ B album since Stevie Wonder, Best New Music on Pitchfork, etc. And to me, it’s none of those things.

It’s not that Channel Orange is a bad album. Not at all: there are songs here that I’d put up against any other singer operating in the current pop/R ‘n’ B landscape. “Thinkin Bout You” will be in my Top Played playlist this year for sure. I love the expanse of “Pyramids.” I appreciate the pain of “Bad Religion.” The songs that are good are so much so that they should be reviewed on their own merits, and not in the context of the album.

But overall that’s what Channel Orange feels like: a collection of songs. And it’s a collection of songs that more often than not don’t come together to make something cohesive. There are a lot of lyrical ideas at work: Cleopatra the queen, Cleopatra the stripper, a pilot fetish, etc. And Ocean gets himself hung up, strangely, on people his age who seem to have it better than he did. They’re lampooned more than once – on “Sweet Life” and “Super Rich Kids.” It’s an odd target to take on, and one that ultimately, on an album that is so intensely personal at times, seems out of place. (But he does sing the shit out of “Sweet Life.”) The ultra rich are undoubtedly an easy comparison for the sort of fake relationships that Ocean is proficient at describing in his songs. But that sort of emotional emptiness was defined better on “Novacane” on last year’s Nostalgia, Ultra than on most anything Channel Orange has to offer.

On the whole, Channel Orange, like I said, isn’t a bad album. There are excellent songs – songs so good that they warrant a good portion of the praise that Ocean has been receiving. But it’s hard for me to anoint the album as lasting on the whole when it can often feel so disjointed – and, on the weaker songs, like a poor rehashing of what Ocean has already done.

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Frank Ocean // Sweet Life [mp3] from Channel Orange