Killian Fox 

Frank Ocean: Channel Orange – review

Frank Ocean's major-label debut is a slow-burning classic, writes Killian Fox
  
  

Early last year Frank Ocean put together a mixtape of his own music, Nostalgia, Ultra, and posted it online. Ocean, who signed to hip-hop label Def Jam in 2009, had struggled to get his solo career off the ground and was writing songs for other artists, among them John Legend and Justin Bieber. But in 2010 he met Odd Future, a gang of LA rap reprobates with a free-for-all approach to music distribution, and he decided to adopt their strategy. It worked. The mixtape, made free to download on his Tumblr blog, lit a fuse under his career, propelling Ocean to widespread critical acclaim and collaborations with Jay-Z and Kanye West.

Now, in sharp contrast to his gambit with Odd Future, Ocean is letting his old label release his first studio album the old-fashioned way. Three tracks surfaced early, but robust efforts were made to keep the rest of Channel Orange under wraps until its digital release last week. In order to give British journalists an advance listen, a senior Def Jam exec flew over from LA with a copy of the album for two security-heavy playbacks earlier this month.

The message seemed clear: Ocean has cast off his underground ties and is stepping into the mainstream as a seriously bankable proposition. Does Channel Orange bear this out? Not exactly. Only at two or three points in the album does it feel like Ocean is actively courting heavy radio play. Sweet Life, a near-perfect distillation of every blissed-out summer jam from Stevie Wonder onwards, is one such moment. Super Rich Kids, featuring Odd Future's obscenely talented 18-year-old rapper Earl Sweatshirt, is another.

The rest of the album, however, feels too offbeat and diffuse to trouble the top end of the charts. Is this a bad thing? Not at all. One of the primary pleasures of Nostalgia, Ultra was how gorgeous melodies bloomed and faded in the mix. The spaces between the hooks are of no less importance to Ocean, and on Channel Orange he opens them out and lets them breathe. Beats run on after melodies recede, lonely guitars twang away in the margins, soundscapes overlap. The album, like the mixtape, is broken up with bursts of radio static, fragments of conversation, juddering tape-deck clicks.

A sense of dislocation hangs over the project, intensifying in the early-hours ruefulness of Sierra Leone and the discombobulated drug haze of Pilot Jones. Even the sunnier moments have a cold vein running through them. Sweet Life sounds like an ode to kicking back and luxuriating, but the line "Why see the world/ When you've got the beach?" suggests an ironic subtext. This is made explicit on Super Rich Kids, which rips into the vacuity of excessive privilege and "Too many joyrides in Daddy's Jaguar". The celebration of wealth and splashing cash around that pervades mainstream hip-hop and R&B is under interrogation here.

There may be another reason for the unease. Two weeks ago, Ocean released a letter on Tumblr telling of his unrequited love for a male friend when he was 19: a hell of a thing for someone with a strong hip-hop following to admit, even in 2012. How it will affect the prospects of Channel Orange is anybody's guess. If the album isn't the break-out commercial success his label is praying for, let's hope it's because Ocean has stayed true to his creative vision and made an expansive, slow-burning classic that repays patience and close attention, and not for any other reason.

 

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