Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange is the real thing. It’s a great R&B album: smooth and comforting as warm chocolate, thoughtful, easy-paced, perfect for late nights and slow dances.
It’s gorgeously produced, seductively melodic and full of character. With this record, Frank Ocean shows himself to be one of the most sensitive, mature and compelling people in popular music. If that weren’t enough, he’s also prodigiously talented and he sounds like nobody else.
What makes Ocean so distinctive, besides his remarkable musicianship, is how utterly human he sounds.
He differs from nearly all contemporary R&B and hip-hop stars by seeming like he has nothing to prove. He never brags, he never sounds like he’s trying to be cool, he’s not keeping one eye on his status or his macho cred like the vast majority of rappers usually do. He doesn’t try to be sexy; he knows his music makes him more than sexy enough without his having to tell us.
Very unusually for a hip-hop star, his album is not at all self-conscious: never in the record does he refer to the record. He doesn’t need to, because his focus is entirely on what he’s singing about, not on his own persona.
In other words, he eschews an entire galaxy of genre clichés by refusing to suggest that he himself is important as a performer; instead, he makes his subject matter important. It’s enormously refreshing.
What he’s singing about – or rapping about, in his slow, gentle croon – is frequently something very, very intimate. This is an album of sympathy and vulnerability. He sings about complex, adult relationships and serious, difficult decisions and situations. “Taxi driver, be my shrink for the hour,” he implores at the opening of “Bad Religion,” and goes on to talk about faith with more subtlety and imagination than most pop stars ever hint at. “I swear I’ve got three lives, balanced on my head like steak knives,” he confesses achingly on the same track.
He can turn his attention outwards and comment ruefully on the contradictions of celebrity life, he can address friends and lovers with startling honesty and compassion, and he can lay his own soul bare.
Above all, Frank Ocean is a simply wonderful musician. Channel Orange is laden with perfect hooks and sequenced for maximum pleasure.
Listen to the swaying, beautiful chorus of “Lost”; the clicking, understated rhythms of “Thinkin’ ‘Bout You”; the feel-good bounce of “Forrest Gump”; the dirty, glittery hook that kicks into “Pyramids” at the 1:10 mark (and then gets a fantastic extended work-over a few minutes later). It’s all just so damn catchy. Short, moody interludes carry the listener from silky ballads to subtly swinging pop and then back into the silk again.
Not much of it, not even the epic “Pyramids,” is very upbeat – this is not an album for parties.
It’s an album to savour alone, with a loved one, or in a small and relaxing group of people.
And whichever way you take it, it’s probably going to be one of the most enjoyable records you’ll be treated to in 2012.