Newly out hip-hopper Frank Ocean’s solo debut is an exercise in restraint
With his work in the hip-hop collective Odd Future, or as a producer on high profile projects like Beyonce’s 4 or Jay-Z’s and Kanye West’s Watch The Throne, it’s easy to expect a bombastic solo debut from Frank Ocean. His 2011 single “Novacane” even displayed an assertive tone; coupled with his recent coming out, burst-out-of-the-closet jams might be obvious. But Ocean surprises in Channel Orange precisely by holding back.
The 24-year-old finds his inner Maxwell by serving up tracks with sexy grooves and quiet storm romanticism but with the perspective of youth. He sings adorably about living at home, and he combines sophisticated slow jams with a brilliant attitude that barely misses.
On “Thinkin’ Bout You,” he goes from sexy basso into ever sexier falsetto while the beat drifts slowly. He brags about the fighter jet I don’t get to fly, deftly delivering romance by wrappings up parts of Usher, Barry White and Sade to keep his patience in check. Lyrics like Since you think I don’t love you I just thought you were cute. That’s why I kiss you are wonderfully honest coming from a young love’s sensibility.
Ocean also knows chill. “Sierra Leone” initially feels piecemeal, but he ties it together with clever flow. This is a guy who is a voice of the time. In “Sweet Life,” he works in My TV ain’t HD / That’s too real —the kind of stuff that brings Channel Orange to life. By skipping metaphors and keeping it literal, Ocean makes this album a viable bridge from one music generation to a new one.
He switches gears with “Super Rich Kids,” straddling the benefits of maids come around too much but throws in how these kids are searching for a real love (a subtle homage to Jody Watley). Ocean does the near impossible: He gives these kids enough humanity that you almost feel sorry for them, pointed out their reality without blasting them for their excesses. Does that make them less desirous for emotional contact while everything else is handed to them?
“Crack Rock” is another blatantly honesty track without being preachy or angry. Instead, Ocean takes a puff then doles out some major truthfulness by asking how’s the gutter doing. He doesn’t try to shock, but because it’s so subtle, he does. Ocean turns up the volume finally on the album’s 10th track, “Pyramids,” a nine-minute opus that introduces some dance beats and awesome synth action. He directly sings to his Cleopatra.
On “Bad Religion,” Ocean finally paints the picture all queer fans have been listening for. Organs lay a foundation for the ballad as Ocean laments if it brings me to my knees / it’s a bad religion. He bares it out with painful honestly — note the masculine pronoun: I can never make him love me / never make him love / no, no / It’s a bad religion to be in love with someone who can never love you. Ocean doesn’t have to oversell it; the track isn’t a grand announcement, but snugly within the album’s package; try not to feel a sense of liberation as it plays. He gets more playful about it in the final cutesy “Forrest Gump.” Unless he’s actually singing to Tom Hanks’ character, he flirts by singing how he’s so buff and so strong.
The interludes remind of Janet Jackson’s usual approach adding to a number of tracks, but they accentuate the positive here. This is not the great queer album new gay fans might have hoped for, but that it’s a mark in the voice of a new generation is important. Ocean’s smart and exudes that on all fronts.
— Rich Lopez
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 27, 2012.