Rhythm, blues and soul music are far from barren ground for artists who push the boundaries of a pop star’s image, particularly when it comes to gender and sexuality. Hello, Prince. Frank Ocean has gained attention this summer for written statements he made about the gender of his first love. It made waves in the media and attracted much praise from the R&B and hip-hop industry’s notoriously male-dominated elite.
Stopping at that, we could call the professional songwriter and recording artist Frank Ocean an interesting figure in the music industry, but this would be an incomplete definition because it fails to account for the fact that he has an extraordinary talent for his art. Evidence: debut album “Channel Orange,” a record that is often quiet and spare but radiates a vision of how soul and rhythm and blues can remain vital in the years to come.
After a brief low-key intro, “Orange “begins in earnest with “Thinkin’ ’Bout You,” and it serves as an introduction both to the major themes of the album and the styles Ocean is working in throughout. Baritone crooning for the verses gives way to a piercingly plaintive falsetto in the chorus: “Or do you not think so far ahead/Cause I been thinkin’ bout forever.” The melody is slippery, the beats scrape the bottom of the bass register, and the synthesizers warble softly around all of it. Song arrangements throughout the first half of the album emphasize the vocals without making much fuss. Even so, they manage to encompass everything from the underwater drum machines of “Sierra Leone” to the glitzy jazz of “Sweet Life.”
Many songs deal with emotional distance often accompanied by opulence, and the arrangements reflect this. Despite this, the project never feels distant from its creator. Lyrics play as witty and well-observed, and the situations described are often lavished in precise detail, as in “Sweet Life,” which evokes the glamour of its protagonist with descriptions of “grape vines, mango, peaches, and limes.”
Midway through the album, there is a subtle but marked shift in tone away from the often surreal humor and wry commentary of the first half. “Pyramid,” a ten-minute extravaganza that touches on contemporary EDM and funk influences, juxtaposes the story of the fall of the last Cleopatra of Egypt with that of a who supports her male companion by working at a club called the Pyramid. It puts the listener onto a dance floor but feels dejected despite sounding much busier than any of the preceding tracks. In its wake comes the second half of the record, which is more harrowing.
The best showcase for Ocean’s vocal prowess comes on “Bad Religion,” a taxicab-set confession of unrequited love. The writer compares the act of loving someone who cannot love you back to “one-man cult” and “cyanide in a Styrofoam cup.” This song addresses a male love interest, and feels no different than appeals to female lovers elsewhere. Whoever the real Frank Ocean is, he is certainly not afraid to engage his own life as subject matter. Nor, indeed, does he neglect more universal themes. Probably the best song on the whole album is “Pink Matter.”
Soft funk guitar is buried under the sounds of barking dogs and elegant strings. After contemplating the spiritual and physical aspects of sex and the intellect, Andre 3000 (who had better keep his promise and release that solo album this year) concludes with a sort of final statement on the matter, stating a preference for intimacy over mere physical contact. It’s restrained and incisive, a crystalline encapsulation of the journey the listener has taken on “Channel Orange.“