The Harrowing, Poignant Journey of Frank Ocean

Frank Ocean -- channel ORANGE -- Def Jam -- 4 1/2 STARS

Recently, singer Frank Ocean published an open letter on his tumblr in which he describes how he fell in love with a man as a teenager. The news about Ocean’s sexuality was endlessly discussed among critics and fans alike. However, this recent revelation about Ocean’s sexuality should not eclipse another revelation: Ocean’s debut album “channel ORANGE”. Through beautiful vocals, imaginative songwriting, lush arrangements, and poignant lyrical themes, Ocean’s debut astounds and probes deeply into his troubled identity.

Ocean’s upbeat R&B compositions are the most immediately memorable songs on “Channel ORANGE.” “Lost” and “Sweet Life” will rightly earn Ocean comparisons to greats like Stevie Wonder and Prince due to their otherworldly vocals and dreamy ’80s keyboards. “Pyramids”, the second single, is a tremendous display of songwriting: Ocean takes the listener on a harrowing journey from ancient Egypt to a strip club to his bedroom. Most pop music isn’t built to hold the listener’s attention for ten minutes straight, but Ocean’s melodic turns, mood shifts and flurry of synth lines make “Pyramids” an R&B epic.

The beauty of “channel ORANGE” goes far beyond individual songwriting, as Ocean crafts a cohesive, meaningful album, with each song building on the sound and themes of the preceding tracks. Over the course of the record, Ocean scatters interludes filled with the sound of rain and analog hiss between the other decidedly hi-fi songs, giving the album a lo-fi charm and intimacy that beautifully complement Ocean’s lyrical honesty. Ocean even reigns in his three featured artists’ very distinctive artistic personas to complement his thematic direction: André 3000 lays down an uncharacteristically reserved and somber verse on “Pink Matter”, and Earl Sweatshirt uses his trademark drone to play the role of the dissatisfied youth in “Super Rich Kids”. Even Odd Future leader Tyler, the Creator, known for his use of shock and gruesome imagery, drops by to write a verse on “Golden Girl” that strays dangerously close to tender.

The album’s climax is the raw, emotionally charged “Bad Religion”. With its sparse, delicate instrumentation and barebones vocals, “Bad Religion” feels like a Polaroid photograph in an age of flash and post-processing. While dwarfed in length and technical complexity by some other tracks, “Bad Religion” is the thematic anchor and focal point of the album. Set in the middle of an album that feels like a desperate conversation in a confessional, “Bad Religion” features Ocean conscripting a taxi driver to serve as his priest for an impromptu confession. As Ocean sings, “This unrequited love / To me it’s nothing but a one-man cult / And cyanide in my Styrofoam cup / I could never make him love me,” the listener can hear his turmoil, pain, and confusion in his voice, and never once does it feel melodramatic.

If “Bad Religion” is the climax of the album, then “Forrest Gump” and “End/Golden Girl” serve as the falling action and resolution respectively. “Forrest Gump” is a sweet, simple love song that ends with happy-go-lucky whistling, far removed from the quiet introspection on display for most of the album. “End” is the final track on the album, with the pitter-patter of rain on the roof of a car and a muted conversation between Ocean and a woman. The woman ends the conversation with, “You’re special, I wish you could see what I see.” After a long, uncomfortable silence, the bonus track “Golden Girl” begins, with more beautiful, loving statements from Ocean about the titular golden girl.

“Bad Religion” would make for a powerful and tragic end to an album fraught with emotion, but it is heartening to hear the more optimistic “Forrest Gump” and “End/Golden Girl” at the end of the album. The two final pieces play like a letter from a faraway friend saying that despite a harrowing journey, he is doing well. Throughout “channel ORANGE”, Frank Ocean elevates his personal musings and turmoil to poetry and gorgeous song, and by the end, it is nice to see him find a small piece of solace.

—Staff writer Alexander Tang can be reached at tang@college.harvard.edu.

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