Where in the world is Frank Ocean? After his 2012 release of the excellent Channel Orange, Ocean has somewhat disappeared, promising album releases that have never come. After the setting up of a mysterious website promising the third album in July 2015, Frank’s fans came out of hibernation, waiting for new material. For example, pretty much the biggest deal in music, Adele, recently told Rolling Stone Magazine, “I’m just fucking waiting for Frank fucking Ocean to come out with his album. It’s taking so fucking long.” Me too, Adele. Me. too. With no new material to stick my teeth into, I’ve recently been turning back to Ocean’s second album. I must have listened to this thousands of times (it was the only CD I had in my car for a good year), but I still don’t get bored. I think a good place to start with Channel Orange is the author’s note slipped inside every physical copy of the record (which you can read here). In this, Ocean effectively comes out as bisexual in what is an honest and mildly heart breaking account of what happened when he fell in love with a man. Whether or not this relationship was the catalyst for the album, I think it’s important to remember when listening, as it acts almost as a signpost of how honest and personal this record is going to be.
On the surface, Channel Orange is a well made, well produced and well sung R&B album, with the kind of catchy tunes you want from an artist like Ocean. It also seems to be a piece of social commentary, similar to what you’d find in a Kendrick Lamar album, for example. Like Lamar, Ocean is able to discuss these social aspects with a maturity and honesty that turns his catchy choruses into important statements. In Super Rich Kids, for example (which features Earl Sweatshirt) a landscape of over-indulgence in the youth of America is laid out for the listener, describing the drug abuse, superficiality, and the problematic nature of life for those whose “maids come around too much… parents aren’t around enough”, ending in an alcohol-related semi-suicide. It took me a while to understand what Ocean was actually singing in his last verse of this track, and on reading the lyrics I was surprised by the apparent nonchalance with which the death is dealt. All of this superficial indulgence is juxtaposed against a sample of Mary J Blige’s Real Love, which is apparently what the voice is searching for, creating a sense of hollowness for those super rich kids who are “purchasing crappy grams” while their parents are out making their money.
Drugs are definitely a major theme throughout the album, whether it be in Pilot Jones, which depicts a relationship based on drug abuse, or perhaps suggests that the relationship is like a drug to him, or in Crack Rock. In this track, Ocean ties together the issues of racism, corrupt police, drug addiction and more:
“Crooked Cop, dead cop How much dope can you push to me? Crooked Cop, dead cop You’re no good for community. Fucking pig gets shot, three hundred men will search for me. My brother get popped, and don’t no one hear the sound.”
These lyrics, plus the backing track of gunshots punctuating the lines all speak for themselves. Coming straight after Pilot Jones and Super Rich Kids, Ocean manages to portray all different types of drug uses, from the home to the streets, and the different consequences of each.
The structure of the album, with links such as that one, shows how carefully crafted it is as a whole. Moving from issues of money to drugs, from race to religion, Ocean maps a culture to the listener, treating each issue with originality. In Monks, for example, there’s unusual imagery of religion and the experience of being at a gig, “Monks in the mosh pit/ Stage diving Dalai Lama” being two examples. Straight on from this upbeat song is the slower, more contemplative Bad Religion, which features what I think is a genius opening: “Taxi driver, be my shrink for the hour, leave the metre running”. The taxi driver, obviously sensing Ocean’s soul needs a little saving, tries to pray for him (“Allahu Akbar”), which he sees as a curse. Overall he has to say about religion: “If it brings me to my knees it’s a bad religion / It’s unrequited love / To me it’s nothing but a one-man cult,” which is the kind of stark honesty that drew me to this album in the first place.
While Channel Orange is defined as a contemporary R&B album, it has the kind of lyrical integrity I’m personally more used to from rap and grime artists. Sure, there are tracks such as Thinkin Bout You which appeal to the mainstream love song market, but this doesn’t detract from the album. Instead, it shows that Ocean can do the sweet, as well as the sour. All in all, the album with its introduction (Start), interjections (Not Just Money, Fertilizer) and conclusion (End) comes across as a unified piece, rather than a collection of songs. It also has some great one-liners, a favourite one of mine being “We used to have things in common, now the only thing we share is a refrigerator”. It’s thoughtful and thought provoking, as well as generally just good music. That’s why I’d definitely recommend it as one to listen to before you die.