It would be hard not to notice just how orange the cover artwork for Channel Orange really is. It’s intensely, artificially orange. It’s practically glowing. Looking at it now, I can’t help but be reminded of the Nickelodeon logo. For better or for worse, images like that one from Viacom’s entertainment empire are inextricably linked to my memories of childhood. It’s a pretty frightening realization, but it’s undeniable. The impression made by television’s constant barrage of vivid colors and exaggerated characters on my nascent imagination is something completely immeasurable, and impossible to overestimate. It strikes me then, in listening to Frank Ocean’s latest, that he’s likely a product of the same set of influences that permeated the formative years of so many other twenty-somethings the way they did mine–Nicktoons, late ’90s MTV, a few dozen early internet fads, VHS tapes, Anime, Super NES, even Adult Swim. The fifteen seconds or so of Street Fighter music that kicks off Channel Orange is enough to trigger just about every nostalgia reflex my brain has at its disposal.
As far as imagination goes, Frank Ocean has a pretty boundless supply, and Channel Orange feels like nothing so much as a playground for those far-flung ideas and influences to run wild–a channel-surfing tour through the three or so pounds of gray matter sitting inside his skull. Sonically, it’s just as adventurous, a smattering of technicolor sounds, loosely revolving around a futuristic funk motif. The stories are bursting with all the rich detail and bizarre variety of a Saturday morning cartoon lineup, and the characters who populate this landscape just as colorful: unsupervised rich kids railing lines and joyriding in daddy’s Jag, the black queen Cleopatra who moonlights as a stripper, a lonely basehead reflecting on better days, a stage-diving Dalai Lama, and even a love interest based on good old Forrest Gump. Don’t get me wrong with the cartoon talk though. This is big kid stuff. Often what’s being filtered through that expansive imagination is raw emotion, the kind that bleeds through anything created in the midst of internal crisis. These are the kind of songs that make private emotions feel like they couldn’t possibly be expressed without reference to surreal, sweeping metaphors and sensational drama. It’s the kind of vivid, poignant storytelling that reaches out to you from somewhere internal and can’t help but pull big, disparate chunks of the universe into its orbit.
Download: Frank Ocean – “Pyramids”
It’s hard to know where to start with Orange, but given the letter Frank left the world a few weeks ago (at the risk of stating the painfully obvious, the letter detailed, among other things, his unrequited love affair with another man, effectively opening up to the world about his own sexuality), I suppose “Bad Religion” is as good a place as any. Maybe it’s the added context that gives this particular unrequited love story so much poignancy, but it’s also a great example of Frank’s unique talent for projecting personal turmoil into something colossally relatable. Lonely church organ chords cue us in, as Frank’s voice, clear and with conviction pleads, “Taxidriver, be my shrink for the hour, and leave the meter running”. This is a confession, and here more than ever, Frank lays it all on the line.
As acoustic piano and a symphony of strings build, so does Frank’s resolve, “if it brings me to my knees, it’s a bad religion…this unrequited love”. By the time he’s reached the words “I could never make him love me”, it’s evolved into one of the most gorgeous, masterful love songs in years. Ubiquity aside, Adele’s massive pair of singles from last year seem like a good point of comparison in terms of raw, evocative power. The song opens with Frank asking his driver to “outrun the demons”, echoing the escape from that mysterious “something bigger than me” from “Swim Good”. By the end he’s confronting those demons face to face, finding courage and conviction in his heartache. “Bad Religion”, like so many songs on the album, feels like a conversation with himself, a way to puzzle out a resolution from emotions that start out feeling hopelessly impossible to reconcile. For anyone listening with their own set of questions, you can only imagine how helpful songs like this one might prove to be.
The three-song arc that effectively closes out the album is full of captivating moments, but “Pink Matter” might just take the cake. Thematically, it’s a meditation on pleasure– mind over matter, morality, love and lust–think “We All Try”, but darker, more sinister even. Musically speaking, it is pleasure. It oozes pleasure. Cool rhodes and far-off guitar peels creep ahead, while Frank contemplates those impossibly big ideas, posing his deepest questions to an all-knowing sensei. Off in the distance, some violent noise echoes as warm cello and strings swoop slowly into the foreground. Frank crescendos and hangs on the word “pleasure”, and then it happens. Molasses-thick, deep-down, cosmic funk. Pillow-padded drums and the kind of heavy, liquid bass that makes rolling your eyes back into your skull seem like the only reasonable response. Then, like so many times over the last half decade, Andre 3000 swoops out of the shadows to absorb the spotlight almost entirely, with an effortlessly flawless sixteen. Only this time we’re back in Stankonia. It’s the funkiest thing he’s touched in a decade, thanks in no small part to the slow-burning “You’re good at being bad, you’re bad at being good” refrain that closes things out. That 3 Stacks leads off with something like, “Since you’ve been gone, I’ve been having withdrawals” seems strangely appropriate. If, like me, you’ve spent years trying to fill the void left behind by songs like “Prototype” or say, “Toilet Tisha”, the last two minutes of this song are something akin to a heroin binge.
These are songs that carry a lot of weight, and as occasionally scattered as Orange can seem, it’s certainly not lacking in gravity. “Crack Rock” is a propulsive, jazz-inflected trip-hop tragedy, that works its way from addiction to full-blown social criticism, with Ocean lamenting the kind of complacency that allows for social injustices a la Treyvon or Oscar Grant. “Fuckin’ pig get shot, 300 men will search for me,” he sings, “My brother get popped, and don’t no one hear the sound”. Then there’s “Pyramids”, a glamorous epic that evolves from EDM future groove to spaced-out, slow-mo 808 slap over the course of ten minutes. Ostensibly it’s a good girl gone bad story, the setting alternating between Ancient Egypt and a what sounds like a greasy Vegas strip club. If Channel Orange has any flaw at all, it’s probably overproduction, but even in a song as saturated in studio wizardry as “Pyramids”, every element seems carefully placed for maximum effect. Time and time again, Ocean and his conspirators (Malay, Om-Mas Keith, Pharrell), offer up luxurious soundscapes with a meticulous attention to detail.
The relationship between luxury, pleasure and wealth on the one hand, and happiness on the other, is a tricky one for Frank, and it’s a subject he breaches again and again, utilizing a new palette of sounds or cast or characters each time. The Pharrell-assisted “Sweet Life” is a smoothed-out, impeccably soulful cautionary tale about the ways in which contentment and luxury can make life stagnant: “Why see the world”, he asks, “when you’ve got the beach”. Elsewhere, he and Earl Sweatshirt take on the roles of silver-spoon kids searching for authenticity in a world of fake friends. Despite all the complicated questions these stories are meant to open up, the lightness of tracks like these, or say, the brief, John Mayer guitar-noodling take on “White” (the full version of which is easily one of the most interesting moments on Odd Future’s latest group project), is refreshing in the broader context of the album. For every “Love Crimes” or “Swim Good”, there’s a “Songs for Women” or to help balance things out. Yes, Frank’s songwriting can be heart-wrending or pretty or meditative. But it can also be playful and witty. After all, each of the products of Odd Future’s cartoony imagination tend to come punctuated by some good natured humor.
Download: Frank Ocean – “Forrest Gump”
In some of his finest moments, Frank is able to be all those things at once– intensely personal and affecting, sharp and insightful, profoundly funny–”Forrest Gump”, like the movie we all grew up on, is indeed all of those things. As an album closer, it’s about as feel-good a moment as he can possibly offer. Frank’s letter gave us a window into the whirlwind of emotions he’d experienced over the past few years, tracing his progression from confusion, and anger, and deep, agonizing hurt, all the way to what sounds like a clear-voiced, even thankful affirmation. “My fingertips and my lips, they burn…from the cigarettes”, Frank sings, and you can tell the sting is still there. But just about everything about the song feels so damn good and wholesome–the lazy guitar riffs, the “Dock of the Bay” whistle, that watershed “You run my mind boy”, and especially that final, bittersweet “I won’t forget you”.
That image of Tom Hanks’ Forrest, eyes straight ahead, booking it straight through the end zone is ingrained into my mind like few others. It’s practically impossible to picture without laughing a little. But this is the kind of song that I’d imagine takes a long time to feel like you can write. It’s a testament to hard-earned emotional maturity, even if it’s written in the unabashedly earnest language of a daydreaming teenage love letter. It’s no easy feat, to be lighthearted with a heavy heart, to lay so much of yourself out there, and do it with a smile on your face. And yet, here’s Frank Ocean, taking one of his most difficult experiences and transforming it into something so beautiful, so instantly nostalgic I can’t help but feel like a kid again. To my mind, there’s not another songwriter on the planet capable of that.