Ashley Cooke finds Frank Ocean’s debut to be quite inconsistent…
The amount of hype and expectation for channel ORANGE, the debut release by Frank Ocean, has been incredible. His first mixtape (essentially an album, but without acquiring the licensing rights for sampling) nostalgia, ULTRA, was received very well last year. The Guardian placed it 3rd on their end of year chart, and the track ‘Novacane’ was singled out by many critics. Then, he featured on ‘No Church in the Wild’ and ‘Made it in America’, two of the strongest tracks from Jay-Z and Kanye’s album, Watch the Throne, last summer. Accordingly, everyone was already very excited when on 4 July, he published an open letter on his tumblr airing the unrequited feelings he had for another man when he was 19. This was a big deal. Hip-hop/rap music is largely heteronormative. Tyler the Creator, a fellow member of alternative hip-hop collective Odd Future, has been criticised for his use of homophobic slurs in the past. Queer rap is making some waves, but it’s in the minority. Regardless of whether it was an intentioned PR stunt, as many have suggested, it has made Frank Ocean one of the most talked about musicians in the music press this past week, as his lyrics have been scrutinised for signs of his sexual orientation, and fellow artists like Beyoncé have spoken out in support of his announcement.
With such anticipation, channel ORANGE has a lot to live up to, and in parts it proves we were right to have waited with such expectancy. Pitchfork, who aren’t known for retaining their cool in the face of new hip-hop/R&B releases (they gave My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy a perfect 10 last year) have, once again, lost their composure and given it a 9.5. But, whilst Ocean displays a huge amount of potential and there are some brilliant songs, the album is very inconsistent.
Frank Ocean has a great voice, and on tracks like ‘Thinkin Bout You’, one of the strongest on the album, it is expertly showcased. The beat and the synths are excellent, but they are constrained to the background, allowing his vocals to take prominence. For the refrain he adopts a powerful falsetto and sings, ‘Or do you not think so far ahead/‘cause I been thinking ‘bout forever.’ Similarly, on ‘Bad Religion’, another standout track from the album, he combines his sonorous voice with falsetto surges.
It’s towards the middle of the album however, where it loses its way. ‘Sweet Life’ is very clawing. Ocean sings, ‘Keepin’ it surreal, not sugar-free/My TV ain’t HD, that’s too real.’ It’s crass, and sounds discordant with his smooth voice. Then there’s ‘Super Rich Kids’, where a thumping, staccato piano chord carries the track, but the song just doesn’t build enough to justify it. Ocean’s voice is very strong when he sings the chorus, but the spoken word verse becomes incredibly irritating very quickly. Next up is ‘Pilot Jones’. Ocean sings in a falsetto again at the song’s opening, but it has a tiresome autotune effect, which I fail to understand when his high-pitched refrain on ‘Thinkin ‘Bout You’ is so strong without it. Plus, the lyrics are just dull: ‘You’re always smoking in the house/What if my mother comes home?’ To round off four bad tracks in a row, comes ‘Crack Rock’. The quite minimalist keyboard work just isn’t enough to sustain the song, and his vocals are disappointing. It may be disruptive to review the album track by track, but the record’s inconsistency demands this approach.
‘Pyramids’ is the most ambitious track on the album, and from this point on the album recovers. It is a sprawling 10 minute arrangement drawing allusions between Cleopatra and a girl working at a strip club, with an extended synth breakdown in the middle and a guitar solo as the track fades out. ‘Pink Matter’ features a great guitar riff and very strong singing from Ocean, and OutKast’s André 3000 guests with a brilliantly flowing second verse. On ‘Bad Religion’, Ocean sings with a profound emotion. He relates the difficulty of his secret and unrequited love for what is presumably the same guy he referred to in his tumblr confessional. ‘Taxi driver, be my shrink for the hour/Leave the meter running/It’s rush hour’, and later, ‘It’s a bad religion/To be in love with someone who could never love you.’
Musically, there are many comparisons to be drawn with The Weeknd. The guitar work on tracks like ‘Pink Matter’ and ‘Forrest Gump’ is reminiscent of House of Balloons, The Weeknd’s debut release from last summer. But, where Abel Tesfaye put out three consistent albums in a year, Frank Ocean’s first release is much too fickle. channel ORANGE displays potential in buckets, and if Ocean can iron out the inconsistencies come his sophomore release, it could be brilliant. His voice is smooth, the production is great, and he can write some powerful lyrics, but on too many tracks he fails at all three.