Sunday, November 11, 2012

Frank Ocean: Channel Orange (2012)


(Def Jam)

RECOMMENDED

Gonna lose a few friends with this statement: this album isn't that good. I spent most of the year attempting to change that opinion; didn't work. It has sparks of brilliance that cannot be fucking denied, for sure, and there's no way around it: in those moments, it's like you're listening to Stevie Wonder in the late '60s, except with a modernist (for good and for ill) slant. And like Stevie Wonder in the '60s, Frank Ocean is a great, great talent -- the sole cultural benefit of the Odd Future phenomenon -- who's not yet come to full fruition. At least, not LP-length fruition. Not meaning to second guess the opinions of other folks who know far more about music than I do, I feel like we're treating My Cherie Amour like it's Innervisions here. There's nothing wrong per se with recognizing the latent pop genius within Channel Orange, but it seems to me that there's some overcompensation here for the fact that major labels no longer take the time to develop artists. And in and outside of the big business circuit, there's a kind of responsibility -- a sort of NYSE gambling -- to assure the future of those who are promising grand returns down the line but couldn't otherwise merit the necessary support to get there.

Here's what's wrong with this: when Ocean releases his follow-up to Channel Orange it will be leagues better than this; and the follow-up to the follow-up could well be a masterpiece. There's little doubt that he has it in him. But what will rockcrits say? Chances are they will respond with a wild mixture of thoughts nothing like the uniformity that greeted this record, giving the subsequent ones a few years of unfair devaluing and thus rendering the same growth they're pulling for stymied before the fact. This is yet another reason why the music business these days is lose-lose, but as I.A.L. Diamond said, why should I depress you? Let's celebrate what works about Frank Ocean's debut.

Listening to the album in sequence, the jolt to end all jolts is "Thinkin Bout You," somewhat conveniently issued as the first single, which opens as an almost reverent bit of '90s slow-jamming before Ocean unleashes the kind of loverboy falsetto that lengthy after-dark, uh, conversations are built upon -- it's an "Adore" voice, if you read me. The song's assured and gorgeous enough to immediately and unhesitantly put attempted soulfuck maestros like the Weeknd in their place, as nothing he's issued has the warmth and weight of this in writing or performance terms. Of the album's four other peaks, three are singles (or are soon to be): you already know "Pyramids" if you've been within earshot of any music blog or news source this year -- it's an idea-filled throwback mess, and could easily be ponderous, but Ocean's winning performance and enthusiasm keep it on the rails and poke subtly, tantalizingly at a cathartic peak that never comes... which is all the better, actually.

"Sweet Life" marks the coalescence of Ocean's pure grandness as a singer with producer Pharrell Williams' finely tuned way around a classicist, smoothly funky R&B ballad -- its moodily passive mid-'70s sound renders the lyric about wasted lives an almost Pet Sounds-esque example of irony, the blissed-out music hiding the paranoia. It's this track that most easily conjures up Stevie Wonder comparisons, as Ocean's method-acting for the luminary is uncanny, and he doesn't merely imitate, he fleshes out and twists the sound being referenced. Even that isn't a pure lift or imitation, for Ocean is well aware of the very 2010s tinge of fear and dread he's adding to a fluffy, familiar base; it's as perpetual and unnerving as the undertones of horrific propaganda injected into traditional girl-group pop by Cults' debut album last year.

And then there's "Lost," one of the half-dozen or so best songs (to my knowledge) of the year -- both a heartbreaking ballad about a relationship broken by drug use and a hauntingly intense midnight anthem that surges, bursts with momentum. It begins with a simple enough synthesized trill, backgrounded by traditional electro-pop that gradually builds, the arcade of adulthood, and comes to suggest both entrapment and escape on the immediately striking, cold-chill chorus with its ingeniously evocative but threadbare lyric: "Miami, Amsterdam, Tokyo, Spain / Lost." As if that weren't enough, Ocean spreads out to tightly controlled, lilting vocal interaction on the bridge that (let's add to the list of giants, shall we?) suggests both Marvin Gaye and Van Morrison -- the song sings him, as Greil Marcus would put it, and not just in a single moment but across layers of overdubs, bettered again by the supercharged, emotionally drained singing on the coda. At bottom of all this, we're looking at something so straightforward but immediate as a song whose music simply conjures up its intended emotions magnificently, a piece of storytelling told almost entirely by melody, voice, beat, production. I doubt Channel Orange is a masterpiece, but not that this song is. It's heading to radio in December and I expect we'll be hearing a lot of it.

Another cut that soars in far less explicit fashion is the Earl Sweatshirt cameo "Super Rich Kids," a five-minute marathon of great wordplay and greater, less organized than usual vocal playfulness that's taken on an incongruous darkness by the end, a suggestion of what Ocean was going for artistically for the entire record but couldn't seem to completely clutch. "Super Rich Kids" sounds like a throwaway that accidentally became good, but therein lies the problem -- the record is stuffed with irrelevant pieces that aren't so lucky, surreal cinematic skits and half-formed ideas like "Fertilizer" and "White" (an excruciatingly self-serious John Mayer guitar showpiece) that are unable to rise above their own frivolity. It makes the big songs stand out, easy to latch on to, but the record as a whole is made so disorganized and diluted it's hard to separate its greatness from its doldrums.

Some will argue that this very shapelessness of form is what makes the record great. I sympathize with this argument; the White Album's my favorite Beatles record! It's just that the wading through material may be worth it when your reward is a "Lost" or a "Pyramids," but when it's merely a half-decent cut like "Pink Matter" (with an excellent Andre 3000 spot, it should be mentioned) you feel that, yes, it's Playlist time. And if you're like me, when you separate the songs you want to hear every time here, you get about seven or eight -- which is why this is a good album, because any album with that may good songs is good, but any album that subverts all that with tiresome directionless pieces of "business" can't be truly great.

That said, it's disingenuous to pretend that Ocean's own skill isn't the very culprit of my disappointment -- when you hear "Lost" or "Sweet Life," it's hard not to want an album full of those, and it's almost a certainty that he could give us one. He chooses not to. Fine. But he also does this within songs, and if anything that's more irritating. I'm irked every time by "Crack Rock" and its matching of a delightfully clever lyric and brooding, contaied melody (along the lines of "Ballad of Dorothy Parker") with nearly the stupidest, least interesting two-syllable chorus imaginable ("Crack rock crack rock / crack rock crack rock" = instant skip). And why waste a perfectly serviceable keyboard creation like "Forrest Gump" and its sympathetically presented framing of a childhood crush on an allusion to a cultural artifact of far less imagination that even the lesser moments of Channel Orange, one that doesn't deserve the reverence he gives it here? The sublime and the stupid, all together, and don't forget that Wonder had that horrendous "Superwoman" track on Music of My Mind.

It's inevitable now that Channel Orange will top a large number of year-end polls, and I don't think that's a bad thing -- it's an imaginative and identifiably new record, yet one with a sense of history, maybe one of the first pop or soul records that truly knows how to deal with the baggage and deep past of its form. The individual songs have been presented with the analysis and investigation that's ordinarily reserved for long-acknowledged classics. And again, there's nothing about that that isn't good for new music in general and R&B in particular. But yes, Ocean will make far, far more consistent and stirring albums in the future, albums that will rush through you with abandon and leave you as breathless as the best songs on this one leave you now. For now, enjoy this, and don't let your eyes off this kid.

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