If you’re unfamiliar with the particulars of Frank Ocean’s biography, there are plenty of other outlets that can better catch you up to speed. Enough has been written about the circumstances surrounding the release of Channel Orange, Ocean’s commercial debut, so much perhaps that when reading about the album, one might get the sense that the music is secondary to the portents of whatever cultural shifts the author perceives. The week leading up to the early iTunes release of Channel Orange marked a revival to a mono-culture of which many have mourned the loss. No matter where you looked in the media, people were discussing Frank Ocean, most with sensitivity, some even finding fresh ways to contextualize his release. In many ways, the artist himself encouraged this behavior. His lyrics, frequently evocative, are open enough to invite these tarot card, tea leaf readings. Knowing what we know now, we try to make sense of specific details, inventing narratives whose veracity we’ll never confirm. This isn’t meant to lay blame at Ocean’s feet; it’s not his fault that we so easily confuse art for autobiography.
So forget etiology for the time being. Invent your own story. It’s more interesting this way. Not that what we know doesn’t matter, but the fact remains that anything that could’ve been said on the matter has probably already been said. Many of the choices throughout Channel Orange are inexplicable, and pronouns are the least of them. If you’re going to attempt to untie the Gordian knot that is Channel Orange, there are plenty of other places to start. One could explore the album’s synesthesia-inspired concept, which is, to me, unsuccessfully transmitted through a series of quick, half-sketched songs and halting, ambient transitional pieces. There’s the matter of genre boundaries, the selective transgression of conventions and expectations, while at other times, an explicit demonstration of reliance on those same conventions. You could ask about intention, about satire versus sincerity. At some point, it’s inevitable that discussion will turn towards the issue of homage; Ocean weaves an odd array of musical and cinematic references into his songs, some more liminally than others.
Certain things you’ll notice and immediately know to be true, whether or not you’ll ever see confirmation. The first time I listened to Channel Orange, I couldn’t shake the specter of another once-young prodigy, Shuggie Otis. There’s a neon-lit, Aquarian spirit to much of Channel Orange — the production is spacious enough that it wouldn’t be jarring to hear a song like “Aht Uh Mi Hed” slipped into the tracklist — but really, only Side A of the album’s first half bears the evidence of Otis’ electric soul influence. By the time I’d stopped thinking of the record through this prism, other references began to bloom for me. The Elton John nod on “Super Rich Kids” was obvious enough, but how did the Mary J. Blige interpolation make sense in the context of this disaffected strut through the lifestyles of the rich and famous? Rather than soften the bravado, it feels like a pulled punch, as if the only thing Ocean didn’t trust his audience with was the idea of him as an unrepentant child of privilege. In its first moments, “Bad Religion” brings Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” to mind, but the song never pivots from its opening; it simmers but never explodes. A few times through and I realized that “Bad Religion” is more closely reminiscent of another Princely composition, Sinéad O’Connor’s version of “Nothing Compares 2 U.” It’s only then that the Mary J. Blige connection made sense to me: these songs — many of them, at least — are devotionals of one sort or another. The emotions, mood, and melodies are broad enough to draw listeners in, but the text is apocryphal, allowing for personal interpretations, for us to become enveloped in the intensity and irrationality of it all.
Hero-worship makes sense for a young musician. It reassures the audience, sets their expectations, and (when done well) shows a sense of paying dues, homage to those within the industry. Ocean is too freewheeling to commit himself to any specific tradition, occasionally rapping but mostly singing across a range of styles from amniotic soul and prog-R&B to funk-rock, blues-noodling, and beyond. Despite the constant dabbling, Ocean seems far from dilettantish. His is music is rarely weighed down by its antecedents. In this sense, a listener might think of fellow hyphenate-performer Lauryn Hill, but the similarity between the two begins and ends with an organic, semi-permeable attitude to genre boundaries. Ocean is never as didactic as Hill at her most stentorian and rarely as literal in his expressions of self. No matter whom it might recall, there’s no mistaking Channel Orange for anything but a songwriter’s album. Ocean doesn’t only borrow from known quantities; he’s humble enough to repurpose the work of another young artist, one whose professional biography reads a good deal like Ocean’s. “Fertilizer,” one of the interstitial segments, is a snippet of a muddy cover of a two-year old song by James Fauntleroy, who has written songs for Ciara and Rihanna, but whose solo material is obscure. It’s a nice gesture and another reason to like Ocean, as if there already weren’t enough. You hope that Fauntleroy enjoys the royalties, if not an increase in recognition.
Ocean’s work is almost as good as those he references; his lyrics are almost uniformly terrific, sensual, specific, and unpredictable. When he stumbles, as on “Monks” and “Pilot Jones,” two songs that are just kind of there, nobody’s favorites, he does so without causing himself even the slightest embarrassment. “Lost” is better than those two, but it’s conventional in ways most of Channel Orange is not. “Crack Rock” is about as good as songs like these go. There have been worse examples of millionaire musicians trying to address social blights. Ocean’s prose is less inspired here too, but nevertheless, “Crack Rock” barrels along admirably.
There are few albums that could be called “perfect,” and now seems the time to point out that Channel Orange is not one of them. But then again, most great records — Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Purple Rain, and I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got included — contain more than a few dull patches. It’s hardly condemnatory to point out the fact that the quality of songwriting exhibited on “Sweet Life” and “Bad Religion” is not sustained throughout. Even “Pink Matter,” sinewy and primal as it might be, fails to match the height of Channel Orange’s highest peaks. The Andre 3K verse is terrific, and the chunky bass is as memorable and stripped down a rap track as I can recall, but the song doesn’t really want to move you in the same way as the more energetic material. It’s muted, moody, and vital, but it’s fundamentally a deep-cut, something to be rediscovered, reconsidered later.
Even “Pyramids,” Channel Orange’s massive centerpiece, thrilling and ambitious, feels almost out of place, like something of a stunt. It’s a big-budget, blockbuster affair, an Emmerich among Coppolas and Altmans — expensive, gratifying, but mostly just dumb. The parallels drawn between an ancient ruler and a modern-day sex worker are, at least on paper, shallow and less interesting than his more grounded material. Of the risks taken on Channel Orange, this is perhaps the safest. Other artists could’ve tried this, though it isn’t easy to imagine anyone doing it better. As far as lead singles go, there are few that go where “Pyramids” does, but it still fails as a representation of the rest of the record.
What then is the core of this album, this argument? In this case, it becomes difficult to discuss the heart of the album without either referring back to biography or attempting to parse his lyrics for deeper meanings. Since this is a highly conceptual album, maybe it’s best to think of this in broad shapes and structures. Channel Orange is sequenced smartly, broken into small arcs within the greater whole; the sequencing provides at least one peripheral benefit: it’ll likely play even better on vinyl. The final arc zooms in from the social panorama viewed over the course of the record, focusing in on a narrator who we suppose must stand in for Ocean in one way or another. “Bad Religion” and “Pink Matter” have already been mentioned, leaving only “Forrest Gump” to be discussed. It’s a curious song on which to end an album. Ocean has just finished questioning — and ultimately denouncing — the arduousness and suffering inherent in love, and then, abruptly, he’s singing sweetly to a lover, as if he’d never been wounded. You listen closer and hear hints of some impending loss: “I’ll never forget you” he sings at the very end, and then, once again, it begins to make sense. Befitting of its title, “Forrest Gump” is a conservative gesture, a conscious choice to embrace sentiment, the impossible perfection of memory, over a less pleasant, more discordant present.
Others have compared Ocean to Joan Didion, so I hope it doesn’t appear too facile to pursue an even more distant line of questioning: can the center hold? Temporarily putting emotional and ideological undercurrents aside, “Forrest Gump” works, more so than almost anything else here. It’s sweet and sexy; honest, direct, and devastating. It brings forth a flood of emotions, evoking young love in ways very few songs do. Were it only for these final songs, Channel Orange could be measured as a success. That the rest is even remotely as smart and engaging is a considerable achievement.