Album Review: Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange

All too often, and for far too long, musicians’ work has been associated with and affected by the artists’ personal lives; it has become a fact of the industry that fans not only absorb an artist’s music, but that they become acquainted with the artist as a human being as well, for better or for worse. Frank Ocean has been the subject a lot of Internet buzz over the past few weeks, and sadly, until Tuesday, very little of it had anything to do with the music he makes. Sexual orientation has no effect whatsoever on musical ability or songwriting talent; that being said, countless reviews of Frank Ocean’s superb new album, Channel Orange, seem focused solely upon attempting to tie various lyrics to alleged homosexual feelings or actions. That type of review is both useless and ridiculous, in light of the quality and effort so clearly apparent within this project.

Channel Orange would have been the same album whether or not Ocean had chosen to discuss his sexual orientation publicly the week before its release. The experiences he describes in the album had already passed, the lyrics had all been written, the verses recorded. Although we at The Astral Plane were overjoyed to see a respected and revered artist like Ocean publicly come out despite the potential for backlash, the blogosphere’s reactions to this announcement (positive OR negative) play no role whatsoever in the musical entity that is Channel Orange. It is rather useless to spend time either congratulating or criticizing Ocean’s lifestyle, and frankly I’m sick of reading track-by-track reviews of this album that seem intent upon pointing out the number of times per song where Ocean says “he” instead of “she,” as if attempting to decide upon the “gayest” song of the album. It’s exhausting to see so many people attempting to analyze the personal life of an individual they have never met in what should be a review of the music.

The most beautiful aspect of this project, and the thing so many bloggers seem to be missing as they scrutinize Frank Ocean’s sexuality in loose or imagined relation to the lyrics in Channel Orange, is the fact that Ocean has created a multifaceted and comprehensive portrait of love in this album. This is not love as viewed through the eyes of any one individual; instead, it is love as a concept, viewed critically and with trepidation and awe. This album is a 17-track rumination on the many flavors of fondness and affection. Read the track-by-track review after the jump.

The album’s first track, “Start,” sounds like how I imagine waking up in an old video game might feel. It really serves no purpose except to highlight the importance of listening to this album as a whole and in order, but it does that effectively. Deciding upon “Thinkin Bout You” as a the first musical track of the album was an interesting choice, since the single leaked almost a year ago and has been floating around the web in various forms ever since. But this song is undeniably and heartbreakingly beautiful. Ocean’s falsetto shines in the chorus, while strings and muted synths provide a backing serenade. The lyrics are simple, but not overly so, relatable to almost any listener. Though it is perhaps the least cerebral track on the album, it is effective in its simplicity, striking a chord with a cutting one-sided conversation: “I’ve been thinkin’ ’bout you / Do you think about me still? / Do ya, do ya? / Or do you not think so far ahead? / ‘Cause I been thinkin’ ’bout forever…” “Fertilizer” is a bouncy, major-key interlude track, serving to bridge the gap between the more lighthearted “Thinkin Bout You” and the more convoluted, contemplative “Sierra Leone,” which is a murky collection of musings on reproduction and growing up, less overtly accessible than many other tracks but a delicious listen nonetheless.

The end of “Sierra Leone” transitions beautifully into “Sweet Life,” the most recent single released just last week, produced and co-written by Pharrell. It is a surprisingly mature sunshine-marinated meditation upon wealth and privilege; instead of worshipping the topics, discussing his own socioeconomic status or spewing lists of big-ticket material wishes, Ocean looks critically upon a privileged lifestyle, choosing to appreciate life’s more basic, quiet pleasures: “Keepin’ it surreal, not sugar-free / My TV ain’t HD, that’s too real / Grapevine, mango, peaches and limes, the sweet life.” After “Sweet Life” and before “Super Rich Kids” lies a mysterious yet aptly placed interlude titled “Not Just Money,” a minute-long car-ride lecture from a woman who certainly sounds like a mother, warning of the complexities of money and the many meanings of wealth. “Super Rich Kids” chronicles the boredom and woes of overly wealthy teenagers, featuring Ocean’s fellow Odd Future member Earl Sweatshirt, one of the most promising young rappers of the next few years. Earl lays down a smooth, dry verse, sounding very much like a bored, complaining teenager, but in a manner that contrasts elegantly with Ocean’s quest for valid emotion and “real love.”

Next up is “Pilot Jones,” less effortless than many of Channel Orange’s other tracks, but nonetheless playing its own role in the progression of the album, musing about a relationship with a woman struggling with addiction. In that same vein, “Crack Rock” is a thinly veiled discussion of the progression of trials in a user’s life. It is a mournful lamentation on the helplessness experienced by those affected by drug dependency. Next comes “Pyramids,” a well-received single, shifting the album once more from a literal foothold to a more surreal narrative. The track is a departure from most of Ocean’s other work; the 10-minute concept piece morphs from an uptempo, poppy beginning to a half-tempo midsection, dissolving into a Floyd-esque guitar solo for the last for the last minute and a half. “Pyramids” is a work of dexterity, a progression of time and aesthetic in and of itself, although it might have been better suited for the end of the album.

“Lost,” although comprised of intriguing lyricism, is musically quite uninteresting, contributing only to the extensive tracklist and not at all to the overall feel of the album. “White” is a confusing component of the project; it is an instrumental version of the track with the same name off OF Tape Vol. 2, a track that acted as a truly masterful deep breath amidst the chaos of the rest of that album, but John Mayer’s absentminded guitar solo on this version could never make up for the absence of Ocean’s gentle lyrics. A more effective choice might have been to include the OF Tape version on this album. “Monks” is full of rich descriptions meshing and complex instrumentals. It is musically more interesting than some of Ocean’s other work, and somehow combines religious agnosticism with descriptions of casual sexual encounters.

After a few less-impressive numbers in a row, Ocean redeems himself many times over with three magnificently beautiful tracks at the end of the album. “Bad Religion” and “Pink Matter” are without a doubt two of the strongest songs on this project, both discussions of the meaning of existence in a truly personal manner. The former, a reflection upon faith and yearning, takes place in a taxi; it is a barren, heartbreaking, no-holds-barred conversation with a stranger, containing subject matter that is both empathy-provoking and incredibly intimate. This track lies simultaneously inside and outside of Ocean’s comfort zone, not taking too many musical risks but stripping down his own feelings and thoughts to their very core. The song is particularly striking because the lyrics liken monotheistic faith to “unrequited love,” explaining that “it’s a bad religion / to be in love with someone / who could never love you.” It’s a staggering image, visualizing Ocean’s descriptions of a “one-man cult” and imagining the struggle to be accepted by a God who can never love you back. Next, “Pink Matter” is a work of hazy, dreamlike surrealism balanced upon melancholy guitar noodling. The lyrics are delicate and philosophical, toying with the age-old question of mind and matter, faith versus physicality. Andre 3000’s contribution is sonically effective but lyrically somewhat absent; he could have played a better role on a track like “Monks.”

Last, but certainly not least, “Forrest Gump” closes out the album on a jovial, adoration-soaked note, reminiscent of a high school love letter. It is a simple and elegant way to conclude the album, as if to remind us that after this journey through faith, addiction, lost love, and the complexities of our own minds, there is still innocence and tenderness to be enjoyed. The concluding track, “End,” is a progression of muffled lyrics, car doors, house keys, and footsteps, scooping us back up into the real world after an hour of wandering through another dimension.

This album is not perfect, and it won’t appeal to every taste, but it truly is a brilliant project. Throughout the course of the album, we are given the opportunity to sample many snapshots of the human spirit, as it reaches out in search of connection with meaning of any kind, whether that meaning stems from love, spirituality or visceral internal insight. In the end, we are not left with a conclusion but with an open-ended invitation for future thought. Although this project symbolizes many things, it does not exemplify a coming-out struggle, nor should it be regarded as such. If anything, it proves that love and affection present themselves in a great deal of forms, and the key lies not in settling upon any one configuration of such a concept, but in weighing and balancing just enough of each to thrive.


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