By CAMERON NIXON
You may be familiar with him for his off-key Grammy performance, but Frank Ocean is much more than that to many people. A member of the hip– hop group Odd Future, Frank brings a much different aesthetic to the youthful ensemble. As one of the biggest rising artists in music right now, Frank has a really good mixtape and one stellar album to his name. That album, “Channel Orange,” released on July 10, 2012 amid controversy about themes in some of the songs, and about the personal life of Ocean himself. On his tumblr page (and also found in the liner notes of the album), Frank told the story of how he fell in love with a man a couple summers back and had his love rejected. It was an important moment for an R&B artist in the ultra–macho hip–hop culture, and it gives listeners a story to consider for the context of the album.
The album is about the music though, and Frank put together a wonderful, cohesive unit of songs without a weak track. Starting off with the hit “Thinking Bout You,” a somewhat typical but well sung and produced R&B track in which Frank asks “Do you think about me still? / Do ya / Do ya?” It’s a very personal song, as are about half of the tracks on this album, the others generally weaving stories of other people. The almost 10–minute song “Pyramids,” tucked into the center of the album, has Frank telling the story of Cleopatra and then traveling 2000 years later into a modern club, contrasting the different roles she takes in the two societies. Featuring a John Mayer guitar solo towards the end, the song hits all the right notes in order to keep a listener interested for 10 minutes.
In “Super Rich Kids,” Frank tells a story of rich kids living a life of excess without parents and rules. It condemns the materialist culture of the super rich, as he searches for a “real love.” Earl Sweatshirt, a member of Odd Future, raps on the track about the materialism that Frank Ocean is denouncing. Frank touches on the subject of drugs and addiction in the songs “Crack Rock” and “Lost.” In the former, he sings directly about a man addicted to crack cocaine while commenting on the state of drugs in the U.S. The latter finds Ocean dealing with misinformed women caught in a lifestyle of materialism and drugs because of the influence of bad dudes. The talk of drugs can easily be seen as a metaphor for any similar lifestyle.
“Bad Religion” is the heart of the album; it is framed as a conversation Frank has with a taxi driver, seeking therapy about the issues he’s facing. When Frank sings “Unrequited Love /To me it’s nothing but a one man cult /And cyanide in my styrofoam cup” you can feel the honesty in his struggle. It’s the most personal song on the album, and one of the most universally relatable regardless of one’s sexuality. “Pink Matter” follows and is my favorite track on the album, highlighted by an always welcome guest verse by Andre 3000. Frank and Andre both ponder the reality of the flesh, the spirit, love and knowledge itself in this chill track.
In the last proper song, “Forrest Gump,” Frank takes the role of Jenny from the song’s namesake film. The song is a metaphor for the way Frank feels for the guy in the liner notes of the album. With an organ and lead guitar playing in the background, the song is a nice, light way to lead into the weirder album closer, titled “End.” In the song, Ocean dips in and out of the background before someone stops the tape and gets out of their vehicle.
Every song is a highlight, but among the ones which will probably never become singles and are still worth listening to are “Sierra Leone,” “Pilot Jones,” “Sweet Life,” “White” and “Monks.” I recommend listening to “Channel Orange” in its whole, however. Above all, the album is an album of freedom. Ocean is free to be who he is, ask the questions he wants and be as vague as possible about those we have for him. In the digital booklet for the album he writes, “Orange is a color of liberation, from the pains of hurtful love and inner securities. To channel orange is to truly be free, to be you.” These words inform the real message of the album. As much as Frank says about the world, he wants more than anything for the listener to feel as free as he does.