Frank Ocean’s ‘Channel Orange’ may be one of the best albums of the year, here’s why

Channel Orange by Frank Ocean

Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange is everywhere. Somehow hitting both the underground and the mainstream at the same time, this ghostwriter/OFWGKTA member/R&B icon hit the pulse of 2012 squarely on the nose. I asked a wide variety of associates and friends what makes this record so good. The most common answer? “Unrequited love.” So many of the tracks focus on this common human experience: loving someone/thing that does not love you back. By using such a universal theme, Frank Ocean has made R&B accessible from a wide variety of angles. His letter regarding his sexuality has garnered almost universal support, breaking down a decades old barrier in hip hop and R&B. The record is that good.

So here’s a listening party of Channel Orange, track by track.

1: Introduction – This sounds like I’m at the movies, some choice movie theatre like the Arclight, getting ready for some THX mind blowing stuff!

2: Thinkin Bout You – Floated around for almost a year on the web, the song borrows from a lot of pop conventions – the soaring falsetto, love motifs, hypnotic moments. The chord progression is unconventional (an ill B flat hits twice), the lyrics are sad or borderline depressing. That just makes the track even better.

3: Fertilizer – I love stuff like this – a forty second jingle ready for the radio dial. It’s basically about bullshit – and if that’s all you got, well, that’s all you can give.

4: Sierra Leone – Initially an ode to the dreamlike and idyllic afternoons-in-bed, this track focuses on how great moments can have unintended consequences. A lovers kiss leads to a baby in the pink skies of Sierra Leone (or a woman’s lady parts), an area the narrator can’t leave. And the song fades away, whispering into bass and harmony.

5: Sweet Life – A love song to the great life of having money in L.A. Why question your amazing car, your beautiful jewelry… just enjoy this time, this moment, and how life can really be sweet. The track is a bit bombastic for my tastes but it has a thematic purpose: heavy irony. Frank Ocean’s exaltation of happiness is merely mockery, a heavy indictment of how a little sunshine, great alcohol, and the ocean can make people forget they are spoiled rotten to the core.

6: Not Just Money – Literally one of Frank’s dudes recorded his mom ripping on him for chasing money any which way or how. Somehow it makes a lot of sense after Sweet Life. Go figure.

7: Super Rich Kids – Benny! Benny! Benny! Benny and the drugs, cars, hangers on, great views… This is the Less Than Zero moment of the record, the more literal version of Sweet Life. Earl Sweatshirt comes in for a verse of self-centered pomposity. But the chorus, searching for a real love, that contradicts the whole thing. Trying to find real love in the middle of artificiality? Child, please.

8: Pilot Jones – Seemingly the most scatter-brained and tethered to reality track, this song focuses on living with a girlfriend who also is a pot dealer and user. The physical relationship has deteriorated, he doesn’t even want to be much more serious, but he won’t leave the relationship. A fuzzy, unfocused track that comes around in an orbit.

9: Crack Rock – The War on Drugs track, double entendres are abound. Crooked cops and the spiral of addiction are its main themes. A fairly sad song that, like the track before it, tries to focus itself on the real world. To me, it feels pieced together and crudely laminated lyrically, but the beat is a meditation for the metronome.

10: Pyramids – This song is 9 minutes long. It compares a modern lover to the ancient emotions and patterns that exist throughout antiquity and, hell, all of human civilization. Pyramids are world wonders but they are also symbols of slavery, shrines to corpulent wealth, and a sick perversion on the dead. Toss a sick breakdown for three minutes and this might be the highlight of the record.

11: Lost – Like so much of the record, a happy feeling song with a terribly somber reality. It’s not about the jet set life. It’s about the jet set drug dealing life, carrying hard drugs from city to city. And she gets lost in the thrill of it all, seeing the great cities of the world. But it doesn’t matter. She is a mule. A slave to the game. If you can tell me where she hides the drugs you win a prize.

12: White – A meditative deep R&B groove. A breath catching moment.

13: Monks – The concert song. Meeting a groupie who just wants to use Frank for sex (it’s a sweet life, I know). As the groupie decides to leave that “game,” instead choosing a lover, good karma, drugs, and Abhaya Mudra to escape the life. A fun track even with it’s darker context.

14: Bad Religion – Probably the most effective song in the whole record (and maybe the most memorable), the a capella falls into piano and strings. Frank Ocean bares himself to a taxi driver who in turn tries to bless this obviously sick man. The sickness, of course, is the unrequited love that can eat at your soul. One of the few tracks that mentions his sexuality, that “shocker” means shit compared to the feeling of being in a “one man cult.” A grower, a beautiful grower.

15: Pink Matter – Focusing on the conscious and the subconscious desires of sex and love, this song has some of my favorite melodies on the record. Referencing sex with everything from Dragonball Z to extraterrestrial agendas, it asks why we fall in love. Then Andre 3000 comes in and does what he does best: make the whole track shine around him.

16: Forrest Gump – When I was in high school I used to do a 4 mile run to Crenshaw Blvd. People of various races would call me Forrest Gump, because, well, there I was, running in the hood. So I have to like this song. It’s a crush on Forrest Gump. Dreaming of being Jenny. Run Forrest run! As the last real track on the record it is somehow less somber and depressing. That being said, it’s also the bounciest, silliest track with memorable word play. Something I am not ashamed to say is on my Nike+ mix at that 35 minute marker when I am feeling exhausted and need some motivation.

17: End – “The future is obsolete,” he sings, and the record drifts into a messy synth oblivion, closing shop for the night.

August 23, 2012 / By