Frank Ocean has had an insane couple of weeks. He’s revealed his romantic feelings for a man, streamed his debut LP a week before its official release, and made waves on just about every worthwhile music blog in America. He's also the most acclaimed member of the hip hop collective Odd Future, so expectations were already high — and the recent buzz surrounding his personal life cast him as a pop music demigod. Is all the hype merited, or has the excitement gone overboard?
As a careful listen of channel ORANGE will tell you, the answer to that question is a definite hell no. It’s been over a year since Ocean released Nostalgia, Ultra, the mixtape that branded his eclectic take on R&B and marked him an easy crossover hit for the indie/alternative crowd. And since then he’s matured his sound, adding nuance to his blunt lyrical style as he reflects on lost love and the pleasure-seeking of his generation.
Thoughtfulness marks every moment in channel ORANGE, where Ocean showcases the raw chops and pitch-perfect sense that allow him to build drama in each song. Album opener “Thinkin Bout You” is a gorgeous, plaintive ballad and “Super Rich Kids” edges on hip-hop’s territory with an arrestingly simple beat and a nod to Mary J. Blige’s “Real Love” in its hook. “Pyramids” delivers 10 minutes of innovative alt-R&B, while the interlude “White” dusts the album's latter half with satiny-smooth guitar from John Mayer.
Channel ORANGE's one flaw is that Ocean sometimes stays so true to his minimalist tendencies that he leaves some songs underdeveloped (listen to the tantalizing but too-short “Sierra Leone”). But if a track here and there sounds a tad incomplete, the album’s conclusion makes up for it. “Bad Religion” is channel ORANGE’s emotional climax, a symphonic love song that sets up for the quiet perfection of “Pink Matter” (feat. André 3000) and the peaceful “Forrest Gump” and “End.”
These four tracks push Ocean's efforts into a fully formed album, which might be considered ironic. Ocean seems to embody everything about music’s digital age, from viral online exposure to leaked singles that can make the release of an LP a complete anticlimax. Yet with channel ORANGE he has produced an album in the old-fashioned sense: something much greater than the sum of its parts.