Let's be honest, mainstream R&B has been a bit lacking lately. When's the last time an R&B record really moved anyone? It seems that those in the genre, when they can be distinguished from their pop and hip-hop counterparts, are more concerned with image and the hottest producers than they are with actually coming up with a sound that reflects something unique and interesting. That's what makes Frank Ocean and his debut channel ORANGE an interesting listen. In an era and genre where everything seems to be about image, he is an artist who's not afraid to be lyrically vulnerable and musically courageous. Nothing on ORANGE seems to be crafted solely to get spins on the radio or ride to the top of the charts. Instead, Frank opts to invite the listener into the inner workings of his mind, allowing them to glimpse the world through his lens. And what an oddly appealing view it is.
After an intro similar to the opening of last year's nostalgia, ULTRA, Frank kicks things off with the familiar "Thinkin Bout You," easing the listener into the experience. Soon after though, he follows with the dream-like "Sierra Leone" and the Pharrell co-produced "Sweet Life." Both channel familiar sounds ("Sweet Life," for instance, can trace more than a little of its DNA back to Songs in the Key of Life era Stevie Wonder) while showcasing Frank's unique approach to songwriting, which is at once conversational and poetic. "Super Rich Kids," an indictment of a too-rich-for-its-own-good generations' malaise, nods to Elton John's "Bennie and the Jets" as Frank (flexing a bit more vocal power than usual) and his Odd Future cohort Earl Sweatshirt discuss the trappings which have, well, trapped the titular kids.
"Pilot Jones" opens with an Andre 3000-esque intro before leading into a trippy dysfunctional love story between Frank and a woman battling substance abuse. The cautionary, and slightly unexpected, "Crack Rock" is next. It's unexpected because Frank, while usually offering commentary on his world, rarely becomes political. Here, he not only speaks on junkies in communities, he also calls out corrupt law enforcement officials. It has some of the urgency of the anti-drug anthems of the late '80s and early '90s but with a much more realistic picture of what drug abuse can do to an individual and a community.
"Pyramids" returns to the topic of love, with its first half dealing with a cheating lover and its second finding Frank trying to find his lost love in nameless women of the night. It's 10-minute run time might be daunting to some, but the dancy beat of the first half and the pimped out groove of the second are enough to keep your attention. "Lost" is the poppiest the set gets as it weaves a tale of getting lost and turned out in the lust of a good thing -- so much so that she ends cooking up drugs for him. After the sumptuous "White" -- a continuation of his track of the same name on the OF Tape Vol. 2 which features a John Mayer guitar solo -- he has a "Ballad of Dorothy Parker" moment with "Monks." It's way more funky than its title leads on, with shades of Paisley throughout.
These all lead up to perhaps the album's best moment, "Bad Religion." Yes, this is the moment that Frank addresses the unrequited love he wrote about in his now infamous open letter. And, while that is enough to attract ears to this song, what is really shown here is just how masterful Frank is at songwriting. In it, he tells a cabby of a love that's brought him to his knees. And when he sings "I could never make him love me," you ache right along with him. It's truly the pièce de résistance of ORANGE.
That doesn't mean that the final two tracks (if you don't count the breezy bonus "Golden Girl," only available on the physical copy) don't end the set quite nicely. Instead of channeling Andre 3000, Frank instead enlists him for "Pink Matter," which sounds like it could've been an outtake from The Love Below. With references to characters from Dragon Ball Z and almost screwed-up feel, it's easily one of the album's trippier experiences. The strange is reeled in a bit for "Forrest Gump," which is not an ode to the movie, but draws inspiration from it to tell a simple love story that may or may not concern the subject of "Bad Religion." The album ends with "End," which uses a bit of his leaked track "Voodoo" before ending with sounds of footsteps in the rain.
Is channel ORANGE a classic album? Maybe or maybe not. That's for time (and culture) to tell. What it definitely is, however, is an excellent debut from a young artist with an exceptional amount of potential. It's refreshing that Frank has actually made an album. The best way to digest channel ORANGE is in one sitting. There are definitely standouts among the bunch, but each song included here seems to sound so much better with the others surrounding it. It will be interesting to see where Frank's career will go in the coming years, but it's already got a strong foundation with channel ORANGE.