My Albums of 2012 – No. 4: Frank Ocean ‘Channel Orange’

frank ocean

Let’s get the depressing stuff out of the way first.

When Frank Ocean’s album was released, the main question that surrounded it seemed to be as follows:

Is Frank Ocean actually that good, or is it just that he stood out because he’s working in a genre where the biggest male star is a borderline sociopath and seemingly unrepentant woman-beater, whose idea of an apology for almost beating his girlfriend to death was to wear a necklace with the word “oops” on it*?


When Frank Ocean elliptically alluded to the fact that (shock, horror) he may once have had amorous feelings toward a member of his own sex, lots of people lined up to applaud his honesty and, arf!, frankness. A few others added an unedifying and witless thumbs up for Ocean’s ‘marketing nous’, which shows how ingrained a kind of insidious commoditisation of culture has become: “oh look, he’s going for the ‘gay in a notoriously homophobic genre’ angle, how astute of him”.

The flipside to the back-slapping was the flurry of those rushing to espouse their view that Ocean was no more than an average artist, who would not have garnered the same level of approbation had his statement been made by an artist working in, say, indie music (just wait until this album tops the Guardian’s album of the year blog and watch the comments flood in)**.

All of which added up to a whole lot of tosh, tommyrot, piffle and poppycock. The question should have simply been: “Is this album actually any good”. To which the answer would have been: “yes it bloody well is!”

Frank Ocean is head and shoulders above almost every other male star in his genre. This has nothing to do with his sexuality and everything to do with the fact that Channel Orange is a bloody glorious album, which built on the promise of ‘Nostalgia, Ultra’ and then some. There was an enormous amount of invention here, but on top of that, there was a heart to the record, which elevated it above the level of, say, Kanye West’s ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’. It took West’s outrageous ambition, but added a subtlety, a sensitivity and above all an intellect that were glaringly absent from that record.

Musically, the first single off the album, ‘Pyramids’, is the album in microcosm: preposterously brilliant and crammed with so many ideas that it leaves you a little dizzy. It’s almost 10 minutes long, it compares the plight of a 21st century prostitute with Cleopatra, the last of the Egyptian Pharaohs and it morphs from bouncing p-funk, to Balearic trance, to disco and it finally ends with a beautiful and otherworldly break-down. It showed off everything that was great about Ocean, his empathy, his kaleidoscopic vision and most of all his ability to transport you somewhere completely unexpected.

The wonderfully louche ‘Super Rich Kids’, in which Ocean turns his gaze on the sort of vacuous, ennui-driven rich kids normally seen on the pages of Less Than Zero (the one truly great Bret Easton Ellis book, before he morphed into the gaudy caricature now lurking on Twitter), but which had now reached the mainstream of hip-hop culture. There is an undercurrent of disconnect in songs like Sweet Life and Pink Matter, which showed that Ocean was interested in exploring the gap between the flaunting of wealth in mainstream hip-hop and shining a light on its sleazy underbelly.

The love songs were possibly the best of all. ‘Bad Religion’ was that rare beast in 2012, a ballad that was devoid of tacky sentimentality. Along with Forrest Gump, it was the most obvious allusion to Ocean’s statement, but the theme of unconsummated love/lust is universal. ‘Forrest Gump’ was a homoerotic romp that showed off Ocean’s ear for great pop, along with some ever-so-slightly tongue-in-cheek lyrics like “I wanna see your pom-poms from the stand”. ‘Thinking About You’ is a glorious laidback ballad, with a sparse arrangement, without any horrible vocal gymnastics to put a barrier between you and the artist.

Channel Orange reminds me very much of Stevie Wonder’s ‘Songs in the Key of Life’, in that it’s a record with undeniably great songs, but that possibly tries to cram in too many ideas to make it a truly great record. I still think we’re yet to see the best of Frank Ocean – his Innervisions – but I fully expect that to come in time. Even despite its length and scattergun approach, Channel Orange is a record that rewards close attention and repeated listens.



*Of course, Chris Brown offered his own considered opinion on Ocean’s statement with a pithy: “no homo”. Stay classy, Chris.

**The best reaction to Ocean’s statement came from fellow Odd Future member Tyler, The Creator, who tweeted the following: “My Big Brother Finally Fucking Did That. Proud Of That Nigga Cause I Know That Shit Is Difficult Or Whatever. Anyway. I’m A Toilet.”

2 Responses to “My Albums of 2012 – No. 4: Frank Ocean ‘Channel Orange’”

  1. Robin Says:

    Not bothered about the first video, but the live track was pretty cool. Not even Jimmy Fallon’s awful craven enthusiasm could spoil it.

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