The reason I've been shirking discussinng Channel Orange has nothing to do with Frank Ocean's recent public confession which has undoubtebly coloured the air around the album. I do believe revealing his bisexuality to be a courageous, celebratory move, that hopefully becomes an inspiration to others in the future, but to approach the album from purely that perspective would be entirely a mistake, one that would undersell the monumental musical accomplishment that it is.
This is the actual reason it's taken a while to come up with accurate words of praise for Channel Orange, and I'm still struggling. This is exemplified by the fact that the last album I wrote about, Dirty Projectors' Swing Lo Magellan, was equally deserving of high praise. I'll start with what we had before the release of the full album. Ocean, the R&B singer of hyped shock-rap collective Odd Future came to attention last year with a mixtape/debut album Nostaligia, Ultra, which was enough to earn fans and accolades outside of the group he started in. Add to that a couple of relative hit singles ("Novocane" and "Thinkin Bout You", the latter re-recorded for Channel Orange), songwriting credits on tracks by Beyoncé and Justin Bieber, and guest spots on two tracks on Jay-Z and Kanye West's Watch The Throne, it was clear that Ocean was (and currently still is) edging towards a potential breakthrough commercialy with his Def Jam debut.
Despite pressure to release something half-assed in the short time Ocean's popularity blew up, the first single in promotion of the album changed all preconcieved ideas of a quick cash-in, as well as the sonic possibilities for commercial R&B in today's instant-gratification musical climate. "Pyramids", released for free on Ocean's tumblr is more than just a song. It's an R&B-prog odyssey spanning ten minutes, that serves as just one of Channel Orange's focus points (more on the second later). Choosing "Pyramids" over Grizzly Bear's "Sleeping Ute" for Single of the Week at the time felt like going against the grain, but now it feels even more of a logical decision, and when I think about the number of times I've listened to it from start to finish, to remain as powerful a statement as it is adds to Ocean's testament as a musician willing to walk the more difficult routes for the sake of his career.
Rumours regarding Ocean's sexuality circulated the internet after an inaugural press listening session of the album: the album's last few tracks - "Bad Religion", the André 3000-featuring "Pink Matter", and "Forrest Gump" - allude to homosexual relationships and expressions. Ocean quelled the whisperings with a document posted to his tumblr detailing his love for another man, elegantly written in itself. Unfortunately this has to be seen as a risk-taking move for Ocean's career; there have still famously not been any successful LGBT hip-hop or R&B artists, and one would hope Ocean has set a future precedent for the industry. Channel Orange's next single, "Sweet Life" came just a few days after the confession, probably the best possible move for Ocean at the time. It's just one of many short, single-worthy slices of pop that are truly immaculate. "You had a landscaper and a housekeeper since you were born", goes the chorus, Frank channeling the most soulful parts of old Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder 45's, with piano to match. The Earl Sweatshirt-guesting "Super Rich Kids" continues the allusion toward certain decadant corners of our generation, and catches another Odd Future star on the rise showing adequate restraint for the moment. Other singles touch on pop perfection - "Lost", "Forrest Gump", the immortal "Thinkin Bout You"; but of course the thrill is in discovering what exactly they add to the varied Channel Orange's legacy. And also it genuinely is tough to leave tracks out of the discussion; they work so well to form a highly-developed whole despite the draw of multiple ideas from five decades of musical heritage the album carefully sifts from.
If I do touch on one in more detail however it would have to be the one Ocean debuted on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon the night he announced the album was up on iTunes ahead of release schedule. "Bad Religion" is perhaps the true centerpiece of Channel Orange, despite it coming in towards the end of the album, as it puts the thirteen tracks before it back into perspective, "Pyramids" included. Frank's plea with his taxi driver to "outrun the demons" leads him to mistake the reply "Allahu Akbar" as a curse. As he accepts it for the prayer and sympathy he originally wanted he is able to move on. Not only is it so relevant to Ocean's current situation it is the most mature, tender and original part of Channel Orange, and in its own right a ballad for the ages, with its orchestral backing mirroring the lyrical predicament. Watch it below if you haven't yet; it's one of the best TV performances in years.
The quickest way to assess the quality of this new album might be to relate it to Nostalgia, Ultra, the 2011 self-released mixtape that first brought Ocean notable attention. Clearly next to that record, which was no slouch, Channel Orange shows leaps and bounds of progression. One of the few things that relate it to its predecessor is the tape-deck samples between tracks: the Playstation start-up sound which begins the album is music in itself to listeners of my generation. In fact the use of this technique to disguise the possible disjointedness of the tracks is maybe the only criticism of the whole album. Channel Orange's stature is closer to Kanye's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy than anything from the Odd Future canon. Though not quite as grandiose as that parrticular epic, instead the record has Ocean's humility and extremely likeable personality in its place. The last R&B album of this significance was D'Angelo's Voodoo, which twelve years ago went straight to #1 on the US Billboard 200. As someone who believes real underground talent should be brought forward to the general masses I'm hoping the right combination of promotion, radio airplay and fan appreciation through social media and the like are enough to propel Ocean towards household name status. It's clearly within his grasp. The world needs to hear about the outstanding achievment that is Channel Orange, and the wonderful singer, songwriter and performer who was inspired to create it, Frank Ocean.
See what other great albums have caught my attention this year on the 2012 Recommended Albums page. Was my review of Channel Orange any good?