[ALBUM: Review] Frank Ocean – Channel Orange
Frank Ocean’s already being name-checked as the new king of the slow jam, but Channel Orange has more in common with Stevie Wonder than D’Angelo. The emotional themes that Kanye West and Drake have helped RnB come to terms with in recent years – alienation, self-doubt, disguising who you are, sex as both an escape and a complication – is combined with a sense of the old-fashioned, widescreen sonic richness that’s been championed by Janelle Monae and The Roots in recent years (‘Crack Rock’ would fit easily on Undun).
Ocean has something like Stevie Wonder’s light, nimble tone, evident in the mild reproach of ‘Super Rich Kids’: “You’ve had a landscaper and a housekeeper since you were born / the starshine always kept you warm” (almost a trust-fund flipside to ‘I Wish’). But it’s also very much of its time – no more so than the coda of nine-minute centrepiece ‘Pyramids’, where some damaged, languid guitars echo (perhaps deliberately) Kanye via Bon Iver via yacht rock.
Ocean is also a stunning writer, with a casual gift for stripping ‘traditional’ male insecurities raw. It’s as evident in the dissolve from dreamlike images of ancient palaces to real-world motel rooms and clubs in ‘Pyramids’ as it is in the liner notes we all read and over-analysed last week; name me another song where a young black man despairs his unrequited love for another man to a sympathetic Muslim taxi driver, let alone one with the refrain “Allahu Akhbar” (the shattering ‘Bad Religion’).
Channel Orange is being framed, much too eagerly, as a game-changer in the vein of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Take Care or The ArchAndroid – but it deserves to be heard on its own terms as well: as a gorgeously crafted confessional that becomes more emotionally rewarding on each listen.