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Album of the week : Channel Orange – Frank Ocean

In the days leading up to the release of his major-label debut album, Channel Orange (Def Jam), R&B singer Frank Ocean announced that five years ago, when he was 19, he fell deeply in love with a man

The announcement dropped with anvil force on the traditionally hard-edged, not-particularly-gay-friendly worlds of mainstream hip-hop and R&B. Ocean is easily the highest-profile performer in those genres to publicly come out

Ocean was born Christopher Breaux 24 years ago in New Orleans, and is an A-list songwriter and singer who has already worked with Beyonce, Nas, Justin Bieber, John Legend, Kanye West and Jay-Z, among others. He is part of the notorious hip-hop collective Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, which has been vilified in some quarters for the violent, homophobic lyrics by some of its members. And he released a mix tape, ‘Nostalgia, Ultra’, in 2011 that was widely praised for its fresh take on contemporary rhythm and blues: restrained, heart-felt vocals and an air of wistful longing

All of which made Channel Orange one of the year’s most anticipated releases even before Ocean’s coming-out letter. Its on-line publication sent the social-media world into a tizzy and prompted a flurry of responses, from mostly supportive celebrities, deep-thinking writers and scandalized fans

You don’t have to know who Frank Ocean is or care an iota about gay rights to appreciate Channel Orange. It includes two songs addressed to a male lover, but it trivializes the album to focus on that issue in lieu of everything else the album encompasses

The first is the beautiful, unforgettable, ‘Bad Religion’. You’d be forgiven for thinking after the first ten seconds that he’s doing a Coldplay cover; the organ fill does sound eerily close to Fix You. But whereas the schmaltz of Martin’s lyrics sounded deep but rang hollow, Ocean’s taxicab confessional about a man he’s in love with is absolutely devastating on both counts. “This unrequited love / To me it’s nothing but a one-man cult,” he says, echoing a gut-punch nearly all of us are likely to feel at some point, no matter what our orientation

He takes a more nostalgic approach to this topic on ‘Forrest Gump’, but with no less depth of feeling. Like Stevie Wonder and other R&B greats before him, he’s a truly emotive voice, one that puts him in a class far above the majority of his peers

Channel Orange opens with nearly a minute of ambient sound, one of five snippets that break up the album’s 12 proper songs, all of which gives the whole project a deceptively casual feel. That’s in keeping with the tone of many of the songs. California is a state of mind in Ocean world: numb, deceptively luxurious and self-satisfied, where the denizens live disconnected from one another and the world. It’s an impression that sinks in over repeated listens, rather than blowing in with hurricane force

The album is a storyteller’s album. Ocean runs through a gamut of stories and situations in this album – untimely parenthood in Sierra Leone’, the ignorance that often comes with financial privilege in ‘Sweet Life’,crack addiction in ‘Crack Rock’.As diverse and schizophrenic as the album may sound, the stories fall neatly in place with the tripped out sonics put in place by the production team that includes Ocean, Malay, Om’mas Keith, and Pharrell Williams

‘Super Rich Kids’ also tackles the concept of a privileged life, and considering Frank’s humble beginnings, at no point are the lyrics judgemental. If anything they’re compassionate: “Parents ain’t around enough.” The laid back rap by Earl Swetshirt tells a story of a crashed Jag and drug purchasing ending with, “Don’t believe us, treat us like we can’t erupt,” leaving us with zero appetite for the silver spoon

Vivid imagery and complex melodies come together on the best moments in Channel Orange: ‘Pilot Jones’, ‘Monks’, and ‘Pink Matter’. The latter gifts us with a rich feature from Andre 3000: “I’m building y’all a clock, stop. What am I Hemingway?”

Channel Orange is not without its odd choices, however. Ocean includes two previously released though now reworked tracks: ‘Thinkin About You’ (now with strings)  and ‘White’ (now with a bluesy guitar line by John Mayer). These aren’t bad tracks, but their inclusion here seems unnecessary. This is a 17-track album that runs close to an hour; there’s enough here to pack a punch without their presence. ‘White’ does add to the L.A-ness of all this, but it’s a minor piece in comparison to some of the other interludes, namely the brief but catchy hook of ‘Fertilizer’

A small quibble, because in the end you’re left with an incredible album.  All it takes is one listen to ‘Pyramids’ to cement Ocean’s status as one of contemporary R&B’s vital songwriters. Equal parts dance floor igniter and sultry slow jam, ‘Pyramids’ mixes Egyptian and Biblical imagery to depict the relationship of a prostitute and a pimp. The story is a compelling one, and more importantly it’s true. This is also the vital midpoint of the overarching narrative; the wittier tone of the record’s front half gives way to an emotionally dense second half. Nothing in this song or the record as a whole ever feels phony; the many narrators we hear all carry an authenticity that bleeds the Los Angeles life

Buy it here

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