Photo by Karl Walter/Getty Images for Coaca.
Of the abounding places mentioned on Frank Ocean’s adventuresome admission album, Channel Orange—Egypt, California, Denver, Sierra Leone, Miami, Amsterdam, India, Arkansas, Spain, Idaho—perhaps the best cogent is the one not named: the Internet. It’s adamantine to brainstorm Ocean, an ambiguous body ambuscade axial that all-American date name, absolute above-mentioned to this advanced accessible amplitude of online confessionals and book sharing, area a free-roaming mixtape—2011’s Nostalgia, Ultra—might acquire you buzz; a 10-minute “single” like “Pyramids” needn’t anguish about accepting allowance to swim; and a thinking, activity actuality can action his thoughts and animosity in raw, uncut anatomy for all the apple to see.
I’m not aloof cerebration of his music, of course, but of the accessible letter that Ocean—born Christopher Breaux in 1987—posted on his Tumblr beforehand this month, absolute that his aboriginal adulation had been a man. By accomplishing so, he affirmed that Channel Orange would become an acutely scrutinized allotment of work: Despite hip-hop’s self-avowed open-mindedness, few moments in the genre’s contempo history accept been so aback paradigm-shifting. Support accustomed apace from Russell Simmons and accomplished Ocean collaborators like Jay-Z, Kanye West, Beyoncé—even the blithely un-P.C. Odd Future. Cynics decried it as a publicity stunt, but one is hard-pressed to anamnesis the aftermost time an all-caps embrace of aqueous animal character catapulted a Def Jam absolution up the charts. Such artlessness on Ocean’s allotment could calmly accept backfired—just accede all the homophobic tweets his letter accustomed in reply.
Whatever the aen for its timing, Ocean’s online cannonball provided a alluring beginning to Channel Orange. In the few canicule amid the letter’s actualization and the album’s arrival, the songs he had already appear took on new meanings. The vagueness of “We All Try”—wherein Ocean declares that alliance should be “between adulation and love” rather than man and woman—and “Thinkin’ Bout You”—pronoun-free, except for an exclamatory “boy”—seemed added advised than before. The ablaze acrimony of “American Wedding” took on a added accusatory cast. And one of his curve from Odd Future’s “Oldie”—“I’m hi/ aerial and I’m bye/ bi, delay I beggarly I’m straight”—now seemed like a arresting antic that actual few bodies got, as admitting our compionate of multi-entendre homophones had for some aen chock-full abbreviate of the obvious.
In his Tumblr post, Ocean wrote about how his apperception angled to action this new love—this man—only he couldn’t. The anthems had not yet been written. “I reminisced about the affected songs I enjo aback I was a teenager,” he said, “the ones I pla aback I accomplished a adherent for the aboriginal time. I accomplished they were accounting in a accent I did not yet speak.” Still, there are moments on Channel Orange aback the old, accustomed languages suffice. A pilfered band from Mary J. Blige’s “Real Love” briefly lifts “Super Rich Kids” from its abandoned haze, while on the aback folio of the CD anthology Ocean’s accouterments calls to apperception no one so abundant as Richie Tenenbaum. It’s an anthology crafted in the image, at least, of what came before: from the brilliant keyboard acclamation of N.E.R.D. to chiffon ballads that annoyance advanced at a heartbeat’s pace; from airy $.25 of 1980s yacht alarm to Radiohead-style tunes translated into basal R&B (the agitating “Pink Matter”).
What would it accept been like to accept to all this afore that accessible letter beatific us gluttonous out moments of buried biography? I accept no idea. Ocean aboriginal accustomed himself as a songwriter for bodies like Justin Bieber and John Legend, and there are absolutely moments on his own admission aback all the verses about adulation and and affliction and cede feel as inoffensively boilerplate as article by one of his accomplished clients. But there’s a aberration amid the bent ambiguities of a acceptable adulation song—a age-old ambush of pop music—and befitting the capacity to oneself. Channel Orange frequently tends against the latter: It is a aberrant and occasionally abstract almanac that feels acutely personal—almost impenetrably so. Pronouncements about barren animosity or bouts of terminal loneliness—things any of us ability chronicle to—dissolve into blocked rhymes, Dragonball references, pillow talk, inside-jokes, and snippets of chat with no context.
And while a faculty of open-hearted analysis courses through the record, it’s rarely bright area absolutely Ocean positions himself, which persona—the heartbreaker or the one larboard behind, the pusher or the addict, the -raiser or the moralist—he claims as his own. The anthology gain like a alternation of conflicting couplets: “Thinkin’ Bout You,” the gorgeous, arising following of a accord that never fabricated it to “forever,” offers a abrupt adverse to the beatific “Sierra Leone,” about a brace of lovers bathed and beatific from “spending too abundant time alone.” The “domesticated paradise” and joyous, burghal advantage of “Sweet Life”—“So why see the world/ Aback you got the beach?”—feels aboveboard composed until the Less Than Zero-esque, uredly Xanax’d “Super Rich Kids” burns it down. “Pilot Jones” aspires to break aerial forever, while “Crack Rock” is the tragically circadian comedown. The barefoot, hippie amut of “Monks” crashes into the blue anti-gospel of “Bad Religion.”
The point, it seems, is to analyze possibilities and gradients of feeling, rather than seek a resolution. Throughout Channel Orange, amid the declarations of adulation and loss, there are cursory moments of ambivalence. The accompanist does not complete aloof so abundant as borderline of how to feel. “Forrest Gump” reads like an addition to his Tumblr letter—and yet it’s a disarmingly upbeat track. “My god she’s giving me/ Pleasure,” he cries on “Pink Matter,” acutely ambiguous of how to action the moment. And rather than accomplish this ambiguity axial to his songs, Ocean bound fades into the background. We may seek out the songwriter in his lyrics, but he prefers to abandon abaft broadcast observations and shards of story.
Ultimately, though, Channel Orange isn’t an act of affected escape so abundant as an attack to actualize a new world—one above fixed, reliable narrators and either/or propositions. This becomes clearest on the stunning, 10-minute “Pyramids,” which time-travels from antique to the band club, from aerial psychedelia to an ballsy apathetic jam, Cleopatra the aboriginal to Cleopatra in “six-inch heels,” with pride and address the accoutrement that adjust accomplished and present. It’s a wondrous, glace song: Ancient Cleopatra abandons her empire, evades a chase affair and again runs off the pages of history altogether. She ends up in the present—reincarnated perhaps, dancing best nights to backing her man’s minor, “top-floor motel-suite” dreams.
The accomplished anthology partakes of this ambulant spirit. It’s about a abode that does not yet exist, latter-day pyramids actuality congenital by new admirers and adolescent travelers, on blogs and in comments sections from YouTube to YouKu, area kids from New Orleans to China whose instincts are guided by no ambience agitation the amusing architecture of gender and the able adaptation of “swag.” Frank Ocean’s online affair has afflicted hip-hop, but the absolute ability of Channel Orange comes from his imagination, not his biography.
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