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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Frank Ocean channels bright talent with first solo album

Frank Ocean is brooding in his thoughtfulness, his music somewhat solemn in its off-kilter cool. Always the mellowest member of Odd Future, Ocean’s studio debut curiously features few collaborations with other artists (noteworthy is the executive producer credit given to his dog, Everest) and leaves the spotlight on someone used to being the most enigmatic man in the room.

Just ahead of Channel Orange’s release, Ocean demystified this slight change of persona with a post to his Tumblr. The post detailed an early heartbreak he endured from a relationship with a man, a revelation that, for better or worse, will create an entirely new arena for Ocean’s recognition. It is unfortunate that Ocean’s bisexuality will undoubtedly steal the spotlight from his debut, as the storytelling ability and musicality ensconced in Channel Orange make it clear that his album is just as worthy of attention.

It has always been Ocean’s strength—his storytelling and word choice. “Thinkin Bout You,” the closest thing Orange has to a single, is rife with dazzling wordplay, outshining the billowing, spacey minimalism of the instrumentals from the beginning. “A tornado flew around my room before you came, excuse the mess it made,” Ocean sings apologetically in the song’s first verse. You’d be hard pressed to find a more fitting description of the break up blues—until Ocean surpasses himself later in the song, of course. “I got a fighter jet I don’t get to fly no more / I’m lying down, thinking bout you,” he wails, a fantastic take on the grounding of post break up doldrums. Flying (or lack thereof) is a recurring emotional connotation on Orange, underscoring Ocean at his best: depicting the intangibles of feeling through the relatable surrealism of fantasy.

More often than not, his feelings are loneliness, emotional distance and solitude—or some variation on the like. This is a feeling that resonates with Ocean, as it appears in not only the aforementioned tracks, but on “Sierra Leone,” “Pyramids” (tied with “Forrest Gump for the album’s best song, though ask me again tomorrow), “Pilot Jones,” and “Bad Religion,”—this last track being responsible for the confusion over pronoun ambiguity ahead of Ocean’s Tumblr statement (a haunting song in its own right, social and cultural implications notwithstanding).

With the emotions he knows, Ocean’s music hits a space-age cool. Orange becomes shakier when he tries adapting his talents to storytelling he less clearly shares affinity with, on display in the songs “Crack Rock” and “Super Rich Kids,” the latter with the help of recently reclaimed wordsmith Earl Sweatshirt, also of Odd Future.

Bouncy and full of wordplay, it’s an unwieldy marriage of his solitary topical tendencies as an artist and the shimmering images of exclusivity this song’s lyrics conjure. It’s the soundtrack to a party at Bernie’s beach house, only you’re watching through a window. Wouldn’t you rather be inside?

He does a little better on “Crack Rock,” his words bristling over a beat that crackles. “You don’t know how little you matter until you’re all alone,” he asserts, and follows: “in the middle of Arkansas / with a little rock left in that glass dick,” shedding light on an unsettling existence he can never claim as his own but salvages with his verbal inventiveness.

To speak about emotions is to speak in a language cloaked in the gray murkiness of ambiguity. As a fantastic look at the resonance of the surreal and sobering chords of love, loss and loneliness, Channel Orange is a misleadingly bright title. (For future reference, a search for the symbolism in the color orange is not served by searching “orange aura mood rings,” or any combination of those terms. That was a mistake on my part. A Wikipedia search on the color was much more thought provoking.)

As the color of both traffic signs and prison jumpsuits, orange is a visible reminder, a warning of what lies ahead. Sharing his heartache with the world, Ocean’s studio debut is more sublime than superfluous, though it runs tangential to both. When he sticks to writing his own script, rather than what he sees as the scripts of others, Frank Ocean shows his true colors.

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