Would it be so wrong to just give this record two snaps up in a circle and be done with it? Of course it would. Yet levity is needed to diffuse all the hullaballoo surrounding one Mr. Frank Ocean. While dream hampton and Russell Simmons’ slightly overwrought responses to Ocean’s lovelorn Tumblr screed were of course significant, we’re forced to wonder about the timing of his weighty announcement. All we wanted to do was listen to this highly-anticipated record and make up our own minds about it. But now the whole ambiguous sexuality thing has been thrown into the mix. So is Mr. Ocean a publicity-savvy genius or was he so overcome by the impending release of his first full-length he just had to come clean? Only that man knows that answer. Why should it matter?
Short answer: the music. Nostalgia.ultra was a nice little piece of work. “No Church In The Wild” and Channel Orange’s first leak “Pyramids” foreshadowed this whole larger-than-life business. Ocean’s music speaks to something no one can quite put their finger on. It has both the mystical elements of the blues tradition as well as the pop-inflected refinement of a Stevie Wonder, Prince and Michael Jackson. Listening, we can only think of all the mind-boggling events that have transpired in the 21st century alone. September 11th. Two spirit-crushing wars. The housing and banking collapses and of course–one tragedy close to the NOLA-bred singer’s heart–Hurricane Katrina. While Ocean’s lyrical content often gets hung up on “rubies in my damn chain” cliché, the predominant feeling here is spiritual pain; it seeps through the speakers from the first listen to the next.
“Thinkin’ Bout You” channels both Prince and D’Angelo but as the album presses on (throw in Maxwell and John Legend comparisons as well), the listener is lulled into some abstract territory between nouveau and idle rich. Earl Sweatshirt offers some backbone on the “Benny & The Jets”-interpolated “Super Rich Kids” but the tone of the first eight tracks is lounge-like. Then “Pilot Jones” comes at you and more profound feelings start to creep up. By the time “Pink Matter” finally hits your eardrums, you can start to see the whole picture here. There’s nothing mysterious about “Forrest Gump” either, the song just about writes the final chapter on the no-homo era.
Which brings us to the score. It’s hard to love Channel Orange much in the same way it’s hard to love some of the landscape that’s shaped it. For a young mind to make some sense of things so many of us older heads can’t is impressive. To express gray matters in new evocative ways is an artistic achievement. But in the end, though the album has legs I’m not so sure they’re the type I want to stand on often. The music is powerful, but the moods and mental space Channel Orange occupies are often macabre. This is an album deeply rooted in the angst and disconnection of the modern age–and rather than offering sustainable medicine it seems to amplify negative emotion. Purple being taken, orange is apparently the new ‘feelin’ some kinda way’ type of color but ultimately the all-orange, all-the-time channel feels inadequate to a rainbow world.