Album Review: Frank Ocean's Channel Orange

Radio: Our R&B is no longer your R&B.

When the group Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All (also known as OFWGKTA or Odd Future) emerged into the mainstream, they brought with them a secret weapon. Behind all their vulgarity, unconventional production, and punk attitude towards hip-hop, they brought along with them New Orleans born indie R&B singer Frank Ocean, an unknown ghostwriter for large mainstream artists such as Justin Bieber, John Legend, and Brandy. After the hype behind his debut free release nostalgia, ULTRA, his signing to Def Jam Records, and the recent brave confession about his bisexuality, the tables have indeed turned from him being a secret weapon, and all eyes and ears have been on Ocean, waiting patiently for his Def Jam debut, Channel Orange.

Opening track "Thinking About You" has been circulating around the internet for some time now, and loses little to no impact. Frank Ocean's soft crooning and hypnotizing falsetto contrasting with the light yet beautiful production by Malay is truly gripping, but not a preview of the rest of the album. While during nostalgia, ULTRA and "Thinking About You" he has been compared to Drake and The-Dream, Channel Orangeis a pedestal where his Stevie Wonder and Prince influence truly shines, as he takes the sound of the powerful vocalists he grew up on and shifts the production in extravagant proportions to create his own tone. 

Upon releasing the tracklist for Channel Orange, there was a lot of buzz about the features on the album, especially the recent return of Odd Future rapper Earl Sweatshirt, but the Earl feature on "Super Rich Kids" is where the album falls the flattest. He fails to adapt to Frank Ocean's style, and while people are happy just to hear from him again, it didn't have to be in this manner. Andre 3000 of Outkast delivers a strong feature both vocally and instrumentally on "Pink Matter", but the John Mayer assisted "Pyramids" is the musically strongest song on Channel Orange by far. Pulverizing synthesizers matched by Ocean's analogy of a prostitute to the Queen Cleopatra and Ancient Egypt shows his creativity at a new level, matched by Mayer's guitar work at the end of the track (the 9 minute track, mind you) and co-writing of the song altogether. In contrast, the relatively minimalistic "Forrest Gump" is another strong point, carried mostly by an impossibly catchy backdrop and Ocean's lyrics laced with Forrest Gump references for days.

Frank Ocean's lyrics have reached a new vulnerability, shown the most on standout track "Bad Religion", where he sings about his bisexuality and the pressure it brings in an imaginary conversation to a cab driver. "Taxi driver, I swear I've got three lives / balanced on my head like steak knives / I can't tell you the truth about my disguise / I can't trust no one" he serenades in desperation for someone to help him relieve the pressure the world has put on his shoulders with their prejudice and the spotlight he's been given. It almost feels cruel to enjoy his heart breaking over the organ through the speakers, but it's difficult to resist.

Channel Orange is Frank Ocean's insecurities on a pedestal. It's a one hour vent session, an attempt to find the silver lining. It's hard to believe an album can live up to the hype that Channel Orange has received, and even harder just to recognize the level of hype it has reached. But if Channel Orange doesn't on first listen, it will on the second or third, and if it doesn't by then, it'll come damn close.

Rating: 4/5 (8.7/10)