There is a difference between Frank Ocean and the rest of his R&B contemporaries. No, it has nothing to do with his admittedly introverted demeanor, or his Odd Future affiliation, or penchant for playing "Guitar Hero" in time with a legendary Eagles guitar solo. It especially has nothing to do with his sexual orientation. Rather, this 24-year-old is lapping his peers and setting the blogosphere ablaze because of the fearlessness in everything he does.
As he demonstrated on last year's spectacular mixtape "Nostalgia, Ultra," Ocean is not afraid to adopt instrumentation choices outside of the R&B realm, dabble with different song layouts, and most importantly, present his audience with big questions that have nothing to do with sex. On "Nostalgia, Ultra," Ocean crooned about the apocalypse over a Coldplay song; two tracks later, he was laying out his views on abortion and the moon landing. Nothing about Ocean's musical and lyrical choices is conventional -- and when his major label debut, "Channel Orange," was previewed not with a radio-friendly pop jam but with a nearly 10-minute concept piece titled "Pyramids," fans of his bold stylistic maneuvers breathed a collective sigh of relief.
Now that "Channel Orange" has arrived on iTunes, that sigh of relief has become a squeal of excitement. And rightly so: over 17 tracks, some of which spin into nothingness and others which poke longingly at the meaning of the universe, "Channel Orange" presents a complex view of American life from the mind of superbly talented writer and vocalist. On "Channel Orange," Ocean is preoccupied with wealth, drugs and sex, but instead of toasting his newfound fame and its spoils, the singer pulls at the thread of their existence, and paws at the idea of love and its place in between all of the shiny material. Happiness is constantly out of Ocean's reach on these songs, whether he's calling unrequited love a "one-man cult" or sitting on his roof, wondering what his next move is when he has everything. There are celebratory moments, but there is a lot of confusion from a young man forging an unfamiliar path.
But no matter what Ocean's mood is on the album, the songs sound fantastic. The production never smothers the singer's sumptuous vocals, which spill over into pockets of air that the listener didn't know could be filled. "Channel Orange" does not contain any bad songs, although there are times when Ocean's themes could be a bit tighter. Yet Ocean's irrepressible spirit carries all 55 minutes of this opus, shining light on subjects that are not discussed often enough and spinning new webs of ideas around familiar R&B tropes. "Channel Orange" may make Frank Ocean a household name, or it might not. Either way, it's one of the best albums of the year, and Ocean, hopefully, will keep making more like it, without a hint of reservation.
Which songs on "Channel Orange" are the best of the bunch? Check out this track-by-track review of the R&B singer's major label debut.
1. Start - Patches of silence and flickers of noise get "Channel Orange" underway. It's as if Frank is giving his listeners 46 seconds to strap in.
2. Thinkin Bout You
A bold choice to lead off his major label debut with a song that's floated around the Internet for a year. Still, the woozy heaven of "Thinkin Bout You's" backing track and Ocean's clawing falsetto still ring true, and bestow "Channel Orange" with a unique backbone.
3. Fertilizer - An AM radio jingle about bullshit, "Fertilizer" is a bridge between Tracks 2 and 4 that underlines the importance of listening to "Orange" in order. On its own, it's a lost pop doodle, but in context, the track makes weird sense.
4. Sierra Leone - The percussion stays buried as Ocean sounds like he's debating with his own spoken-word statements. A meditation on sex, pregnancy and childhood dreams that begs for repeated listens in order to crack its elliptical code.
5. Sweet Life
Ocean places his sunglasses on and becomes the captain of a sumptuous soul cruise, prodding the privileged to reach for more by unraveling their lavish realities. "Why see the world, when you got the beach?" he asks rhetorically.
6. Not Just Money - Another quick interlude that once again ties together the two songs flanking it on the album. In 60 seconds, a woman explains why money it not just money -- it is everything, including happiness.
7. Super Rich Kids (featuring Earl Sweatshirt) - A celebration of excess quickly dissolves into a basic plea for honest emotion, and Ocean's Odd Future mate scoops up some rhymes about reckless driving. The steadiness of the beat is immediately familiar but wholly fresh -- it's like Ocean snatched "Benny and the Jets" and threw the composition down a trap door into another universe.
8. Pilot Jones - Bleary electronic blips soundtrack this ode to a strung-out woman that Ocean can't help but adore. The central concept here is not as fleshed-out as on other "Orange" tracks, but the footprints that do exist are striking.
9. Crack Rock - While the cymbals come to life and twinkling keys inject some gravitas, Ocean delivers a scattershot examination of drugs, corruption, broken homes and gun violence. The ordeal sounds great, but the songwriting is looser than it should be.
The centerpiece of "Channel Orange" conjures images of Cleopatra's ancient betrayal before the dream slithers to an end, and an even more dour vision of romance comes into view. The real triumph here is Ocean's song structure: verses and hooks collapse onto each other, rhymes pop up out of nowhere, and the singer acts like minutely balancing a 10-minute concept piece is no big deal.
11. Lost - After the slow burn of "Pyramids," "Lost" offers an unexpected rush of ornate pop -- about a drug-cooking girlfriend, no less. The song shimmies forward in a daze, with Ocean trying to find his love within the seduction of sin.
12. White (featuring John Mayer) - Guitar noodling courtesy of Mr. Mayer can't top the sparkling "White" that already exists on this year's "The Odd Future Tape Vol. 2." At least this one lets the listener catch his or her breath after five straight deep dives.
13. Monks - Combining casual sex with devout religion and setting the shindig at a righteous concert and then a metaphorical jungle, Ocean crams a lot of ideas into a short running time. Parts of "Monks" may not fully work, but the souped-up instrumentation largely covers any lyrical miscues.
14. Bad Religion
The most explicit rumination of Ocean's undefinable sexuality is also the most electric, naked, unmistakably affecting song he has ever made. Ocean's only mistake here is that "Bad Religion" is not the last song on "Channel Orange," because nothing can suitably follow it. An instant classic.
15. Pink Matter (featuring Andre 3000) - Questions abound for Ocean, who lets grandiose ideas roll around in his mind and struggles choosing between sensory pleasure and universal meaning. Andre doesn't necessarily work within Ocean's thematic confines, but his flow bumps against the elastic beat before the song gloriously spirals into oblivion.
16. Forrest Gump - Like Drake's "Practice," Ocean offers a late album track with a distinctly playful concept, likening a crush to the titular hero of "Forrest Gump." When removed from the heaviness of the album around it, the lightweight "Gump" is simple fun with a killer melody -- but, alas, doesn't quite fit with the rest of Ocean's heartfelt compositions here.
17. End - A song that sounds like it's trapped at the bottom of a well, gasping for air before eventually accepting the darkness around it. "You're special… I wish you could see what I see," a female voice offers before the music finally stops for good.