A month ago, I wrote about "Pyramids" - Frank Ocean's nearly 10-minute ode to the past/present/queens/strippers/Egypt/and more. Despite my initial thoughts on the song, it didn't take away from the fact that Channel Orange was one of the most anticipated albums of the year for me and I still wanted to hear it in depth.
That review would be overshadowed by Ocean revealing his past with another man and him dealing with the heartbreak of that love not being fully reciprocated. Surprisingly, I saw most respond to this very well. It said a lot that in this day and age, a male R&B singer's career isn't in jeopardy from who he loves.
That brings me to Channel Orange. I wasn't sure what to expect from it but since I loved Nostalgia/Ultra, I knew was going to be quality. What I didn't expect was that it was so similar in mood despite touching on different themes.
- “Sweet Life” (Nice shout out to Ladera Heights!! Black Beverly Hills indeed. Very easy, breezy song.)
- “Bad Religion” (So haunting, so sad, so honest, so relateable. Wanting to run away from your problems yet you still succumb to it because it won’t go away. )
|A screenshot of Frank performing "Bad Religion" at Late Night with Jimmy Fallon - a performance that must be seen.|
“It’s a bad religion to be in love with someone who could never love you” – this and Pyramids could be the R&B song of the year.
- Super Rich Kids (It's still weird hearing about Black dudes sing about the rich life that’s associated with White kids without mocking the culture but it's a chance to praise Earl’s verse and Frank’s eye for commentary.)
- Pink Matter (A great duet with Andre 3000 over what could’ve been a song on Love Below 9 years ago. Similar in themes to dealing with the complexity of love. And a Majin Boo reference from Dragonball Z??? You’re a sly one, Mr. Ocean)
Oh yeah, Pyramids? My view on it has turned a full 180. I criticized the song for vocally not rising to the creativity it imagined. Now? I stepped back and appreciated the beauty in the multi-layered storytelling.
Instead of being boring, the music creates a dream-like atmosphere for Frank’s tale of Ancient Egyptian beauty to present day strippers. The hopeful intro gave it some bounce while the 2nd half added to the sad/regretful mood. That brief, subtle guitar solo at the end gave me chills.
And who is telling the story? A king, a pimp, a client, an outside narrator looking at the woman (women?). There’s so much to dig into and when a song does that while remaining accessible, it’s magic.
The beat change fit better than I thought because I keep waiting to hear how it changes. It made me feel sad, cool and start thinking of how to show this story in video. When a song makes you imagine what a video could look like, that’s an experience worth having.
Could it still have some more harmonies? Maybe but I’m not going to nitpick. Not when I listen to it almost once a week. I admit that I needed more time to fully digest this song and now it’s one of my favorites.
It's definitely an album influenced by two things. 1. Being in L.A. and embracing/evaluating the good life. 2. Frank's former love from that letter.
It’s a bold album, even in the 21st century. It's daring you to ignore the gossipy nature of the subject matter to focus on the music. It's easy for people to focus on the fact three songs potentially discuss his lost male love. But it's more challenging to think about it as Frank sharing universal feelings that men or women can relate to.
Is “Thinking About You” about a woman or a guy? Does it really matter if you can sing those words thinking about someone special? That’s the challenge – listen without prejudice like George Michael said. I did. It’s a nice single.
I was forced to challenge myself elsewhere to. “Bad Religion” made me think about what it's like to love/like someone who doesn't like you back. “”Forrest Gump made do a double take but it was a creative metaphor. It could've sound cliché but he made it sound almost sweet.
That last sentence sums up what Frank does best. He doesn’t force you to listen with power but with subtlety. He slowly overwhelms you and I was left to enjoy the experience of hearing him and his storytelling. That’s why I love Nostalgia/Ultra so much. On Channel Orange, he gives you more of his soul with great music behind him. That’s all I can ask for from folks with talent like his.
My girlfriend also pointed out that it's not an album made with radio compromise. The production is consistent (even with songs from Tyler, the Creator and Pharrell) and there's no obvious singles besides “Thinking About You” or “Sweet Life.”
So many new or young artists are crafted for the radio - think J. Cole, Wale or B.O.B. - that their vision almost gets lost (something I hope doesn't happen to Kendrick Lamar and his Black Hippy Crew). That’s another why this album is so bold. It's a major label album that Frank wanted to make and it sounds like he was able to do it.
Overall, it's a great album. One of the best R&B albums since Maxwell's "BLACKsummersnight" or Erykah Badu’s “New Amerykah Part 2”. Frank is a great writer with an eye for detail and creativity. He also uses his voice well to share his vulnerability and insecurity. I hope as he grows more comfortable in the spotlight, he'll continue to expand into showing more joy in addition to the complex nature of love/life he sings so well about.