REVIEW: channel ORANGE – Frank Ocean

The Grammy-award winner Frank Ocean follows up his debut mixtape Nostalgia, ULTRA with the more mature and thoughtful album that made him a household name in the world of R&B. The tracks are confessional, and reveal new thoughts and clues with every listen. I’m of course referring to channel ORANGE.

Frank Ocean is a craftsman, and channel ORANGE shows this in every aspect. Ocean wrote the songs, then according to the producers, ordered them into the track listing and began to record in that order. The result is a grade-A work of R&B, with Ocean’s production and musical arrangement revealing influences of electronic, funk, soul, and contemporary rhythm and blues. The album works like Ocean flipping through multiple television channels, framing the stories and snippets of his life as TV shows. Flickers of static, bars of tone, and the occasional channel switch can be heard across the tracks.

Ocean’s songwriting employs descriptive narratives, using sentimentality and open metaphors brilliantly, as the album explores themes of unrequited love, longing, and sex. The 10-minute epic Pyramids is the prime example and the album’s highpoint, a true masterpiece. Ocean juxtaposes references to Cleopatra with strippers and sex workers, a symbolic fall from grace of the black man and woman from Egypt to America. The lyrics and metaphors work spectacularly, right up until the final and excellent plot twist that is the last line on the final verse.

“Pink Matter” is a slow brood over Ocean’s desire and fantasy over the female body and its pleasures, and a struggle with his own sexuality. Frank’s bisexuality also plays a hand into the lyrics, in some cases never referring to his lover as ‘he’ or ‘she’ not only across this song but other tracks on the album as well. Andre 3000’s appearance is also stellar, his flow and lyrics hammer the narrative home. In contrast, “Bad Religion” uses religion as a metaphor for his worship of a man, someone who can’t love him back.

Drugs make repeat appearances, “Pilot Jones” also compares Frank’s immature lover (possibly his first) to a drug addiction. The bass-drum heavy “Lost” also tells of a woman who gets lost in the highs of trafficking, money, and the lavish lifestyle in a catchy song where you could easily miss the meanings. Finally, “Crack Rock” pens the life of a drug abuser who can’t put down the pipe. My only gripe with this song is the instrumentation seems too upbeat for the subject matter, and could work without the drumbeat.

“Super Rich Kids” again touches on a life of glamour, emotional detachment, and children with too much money. Frank also tests his vocal range and spoken word ability here, with Earl Sweatshirt providing a verse and his two cents on the rich life. The instrumentals across all these tracks are well produced and memorable, “Sweet Life” has a funky bass line and gospel choir, and “Sierra Leone” features faded synthesisers and string sections.

Channel ORANGE succeeds in so many places, and is an essential addition to your record collection. Nothing less than 5 stars.

Reviewed by Aden Beaver