The most immediately striking aspect of channel ORANGE upon first listen is how palpably mature an album it is. I know there is a necessity to categorise musicians by genre, but it’s simply impossible to box Frank Ocean in the R&B category with artists like Chris Brown and Trey Songz. While his so-called peers embrace the current electro-centric wave, Frank is fighting a lonely battle to restore credibility to an ailing genre.
channel ORANGE feels like a journey, and aptly opens and closes with tracks titled “Start” and “End” respectively. This is more symbolic than simplistic. Every journey has a definite start and end, it’s what happens in between that is of any importance. Much like the album bookends, everything here seems deliberate. For example, the very next track after “Start” is “Thinking About You,” which he penned last year for Roc Nation singer Bridget Kelly. Previously leaked and heavily rotated, you feel like he is giving you time to settle in a familiar setting before you take flight with him. Even though many would have already heard this track, it is still not unwelcome here.
A strong track with powerful falsetto that sets quite a high standard for the rest of the album, this is almost immediately surpassed as soon as we get past an interlude and into his next track, “Sierra Leone.” You immediately realise that you are not listening to an ordinary artist as Ocean crafts a delightfully abstract study on childhood dreams that you simply couldn’t fathom on a Ne-Yo album.
The greatest triumph of channel ORANGE is not limited to how tightly it’s produced or how crisp Frank Ocean sounds layered on solid production, but how bold a record this is. Wilfully ignoring current contemporary sounds and trends, channel ORANGE lives within its own esoteric universe, confidently gliding through dreamy, emotive and playful accounts without missing a step or breaking stride.
It is to also to Ocean’s credit that this album, or his vocals, sound like nothing else. [OK, maybe there is a hint of Stevie Wonder in there, but it feels like nitpicking because I can’t think of many vocalists who don’t have a little Stevie in them.] His unique track arrangements are a testament to his vision. An example of this is the centrepiece of the album – “Pyramids.”
I mentioned two things about Frank Ocean, which is that he is bold and that everything on this album seems highly deliberate. “Pyramids” is a glaring example of this; placed strategically at the centre of the channel ORANGE experience and clocking in at just under 10 minutes is quite bold considering the modern listener’s attention span. The track demands your attention and immersion and will reward you should you accept. The lyrics do veer from weird to absurd, but the aim here is a sonic hypnosis. You are immediately arrested by the level of craft involved in producing this song.
I was already quite sold on the album by this point, with a cacophony of sounds and influences blended to create a unique feel. Then there was more. Following solid tracks like “Monk,” and a rather welcome John Mayer instrumental (“White Lies”), came the standout track of the album. I’m sure most expected “Pyramids” to be shining moment of channel ORANGE when it leaked recently, simply for how ambitious it was, but Frank had other plans; lamenting his unrequited first love [‘I can’t make him love me’] with a brutally honest tale but relatable theme on “Bad Religion.”
As channel ORANGE begins to draw its curtains we get another highly anticipated collaboration, with Andre 3000 on “Pink Matter.” 3000 has a rather unique career now where he can simply complete one or two verses a year and still somehow remain relevant – and here, he contributes heavily to another standout track on a wonderfully crafted album.
channel ORANGE is bold in its aim, ambitious in its reach and powerful in its impact. I honestly can’t think of an R&B album in recent times that was remotely this creative. Tightly produced, with songs kept brief and never outstaying their welcome, the only factor that stops channel ORANGE from being a flawless album is its occasional veering away from the tight structures that make Ocean’s music so compelling.
Many people falter under such heavy anticipation, following a captivating record like nostalgia,ultra, and many people would not take so many risks with their debut major label release – but Frank Ocean isn’t many people and we have to thank our lucky stars for that. Go and get this album.