August 29, 2012

Test Spins: Frank Ocean, Channel Orange

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Frank Ocean has a way with words.

He uses them wisely, and his eloquence is stronger as a result. That is one valid takeaway after listening to his latest album and veritable masterpiece, Channel Orange, which was released on July 12. It is also worth mentioning that almost a month before this debut, Ocean, eloquent as always, detailed his romantic relationship with another “he” and the fact that it was his first true experience with love. While this revelation is certainly societally important — Def Jam mogul Russell Simmons proclaimed, “The courage of Frank Ocean just changed the game!” — it also brings a great degree of clarity to the album’s issues of insecurity and unrequited love.

Unlike fellow Odd Future member, Tyler the Creator, Ocean’s strengths are his genre-defying sound and ability to create rich imagery with it. He forces listeners to feel everything he is feeling, whether pain or ecstasy.

In the opening lines of “Thinkin Bout You,” Ocean says, “A tornado flew around [his] room” and to “please excuse the mess it made.” This surrealist scene — coupled with the alternating rise and fall of pitch as he jumps up octaves only to dive back down seconds later — works effectively to manifest the whirlwind of his thoughts. At times, it sounds as if Ocean himself has lost control of the song, his topical wanderings bringing him from fighter jets to ruminating upon his “first time.” The way that he is able to melodically communicate this complex string of thinking — this ‘brainstorm,’ if you will — is only complemented by the fact that it is also extremely enjoyable music.

There is obviously a lot going in his head. In his now internationally famous Tumblr post, Ocean explained that in the wake of his unrequited love, “I wanted to create worlds that were rosier than mine.” It is a sentiment that visibly carried over into the production of some the album’s sunnier songs like “Sweet Life” and “Super Rich Kids.”

“Sweet Life” carries us to a utopia of comfort and security with a twinkling piano melody, where the focus is on “Keepin it surreal, whatever you like / whatever feels good.” Evoking a perfect air of complacency, Ocean creates this little slice of heaven and queries almost incredulously, “Why see the world when you’ve got the beach?”

In the “Super Rich Kids,” Ocean’s melodic singing becomes the jaded drawl of one of the overly privileged youths he expounds upon. With constant repetitions of “too many” and various symbols of burdensome wealth — “joyrides in daddy’s Jaguar” to “white lies and white lines” — Ocean and featured guest, Earl Sweatshirt (another Odd Future comrade), paint a picture of excess while still not floating over the emotional intricacies that accompany it.

However, the good times cannot last. Just as he sings about bliss, Frank Ocean can convey the opposite. In “Bad Religion,” arguably one of the album’s most powerful titles, Ocean expresses the feelings of emotional entrapment and utter loneliness while he rode in the back of a taxi. The ominous organ riffs echo behind a belting cry of unrequited love being “nothing but a one man cult.” He even goes so far as to liken his situation to living under the constant threat of death. He explains, simply, “I could never make him love me,” which eventually devolves into a desperate plea of “Love me.” Here, Ocean has taken something so raw as his struggle with love and identity and made it something a stranger immediately understands. The effect is unsettling.

Familiar organ chords signal the start of “Forrest Gump,” but this time they are accompanied with twangy guitar line that hints toward optimism. That hint is confirmed when up-tempo beat cuts a quarter of the way in — spurring the song on and giving it a warm sense of finality. It is clear that Ocean has loved and lost, but when he says, “I won’t forget you,” it is not out of bitterness, but appreciation for living experience at all. Though he never did attain the sweet life he lusted after, Ocean ends up with a real sense of closure — finding balance in a world of extremes — and thus, Channel Orange ends in triumph.

Original Author: Lucas Colbert-Carreiro