[Def Jam, 2012]
Jeff Pearson, July 13, 2012
Listen: “Bad Religion”
Nostalgia has a way of creating the sense of longing within a person. Whether it is an 8-bit score to a pixelated adventure through space, the smell of fallen leaves–piled months prior–burning in a rusted oil drum, or a photograph, reminding you of how cool the musicians smattered on your childhood bedroom walls seemed to be, memories have a way of flooding back due to the slightest trigger. We’ve all had moments where one sound, smell, or sight recalls the chorus of senses needed to complete the picture of what that specific memory is tied to—the video game soundtrack somehow filling your nostrils with the sweet smell of honeysuckle carried through the open window you swore to your mother to keep closed to save on air conditioning during one particularly hot summer, the burning leaves practically raising long-ago goose pimples from whichever biting winter day when you realized you love the smell they produce, or the faded photograph recalling what it was like to hear those songs for the first time as the resident and architect of that bedroom. This is also a concept that Frank Ocean is obviously very familiar with. Looking back at Ocean’s debut mixtape, Nostaglia, Ultra, the singer has kept close ties between memory and longing and his introspective lyrical themes. If Nostalgia, Ultra was a “longing for the past,” as Ocean stated, then Channel Orange, his proper debut record, is a collection of sights, sounds and smells that trigger that longing.
From the opening moments of Channel Orange, as the sound of the original PlayStation startup introduces the album much like it introduced many of us to insomnia years ago, Ocean makes it apparent that this record will be closely tied with memory and the feelings associated. With “Thinking ‘Bout You,” Ocean immediately jumps into the album’s most prevalent lyrical motif, that of unrequited love. His voice rings dynamic and clear, completely honest as his lyrical prowess is also at once evident. Ocean writes with complete control and attention to every detail; as he sings to an old flame, he simultaneously laments the fact that his strong feelings went unreturned, saying “Do you think about me still, or do you not think so far ahead / ‘Cause I’ve been thinking ‘bout forever,” and, with lines like “No, I don’t like you / I just thought you were cool enough to kick it,” tries to put up a front of nonchalance in order to protect his feelings. It is this command of his craft which makes Ocean’s songwriting so compelling, that we can all relate to trying to straddle the line between flippancy and wearing our heart on our sleeve, and it’s a new feeling to hear someone so assuredly deliver lines like these.
As personally reflective and set in the past his lyrics are, the musical elements of Channel Orange seem to be just as firmly rooted in the present. The music ranges from the whimsical jazz-funk of “Sweet Life” and “Lost” to bass-heavy trips down the 405 with “Pilot Jones” and “Pyramids”. Ocean, originally from New Orleans, relocated to the sunnier and more palm-tree-filled Los Angeles due to Hurricane Katrina, and he completely embraced the head-in-the-clouds, foggy atmosphere that permeates the City of Angels within his music. “Sweet Life” plays like a west coast anthem supported by funky basslines and delicate organ accents. Ocean brings to mind a very good question, and what seems to be more reflective of his music than it may appear on the surface, “Why see the world when you’ve got the beach?” Why indeed, Frank.
As Channel Orange progresses, Ocean seems to grow more and more confident. It settles into a very well-defined groove–fellow member of Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, of which Ocean is the designated R&B crooner, Earl Sweatshirt guests on “Super Rich Kids,” a satirical jab at the over-privileged, over-indulged youth that occupy much of Ocean’s version of Southern California, and Ocean eloquently describes, perceivably, one of those lost youths’ fall from grace in the form of “Crack Rock”. The juxtaposition of lighthearted musical themes and incredibly singable melodies with the dark lyrical content of “Crack Rock” shows just how nuanced Ocean’s music is on multiple listens. Ocean forces the listener to face very real issues while never sacrificing his mastery of pop songcraft. In one of the most poignant moments of Channel Orange, Ocean plainly states, “You’re shucking and jiving, stealing and robbing / To get that fixing that you’re itching for / Your family stopped inviting you to things / Won’t let you hold their infant.”
The record then virtually explodes into a kaleidoscope of colorful songs and characters contained in them. The nearly ten-minute “Pyramids” draws a parallel between the last pharaoh of ancient Egypt and the object of the narrator’s affection, a Las Vegas stripper named Cleopatra. The track snakes its way through the speakers, playing like a narrative of a long night in Las Vegas, beginning in a strobe-lit club with its bombastic and funky first half, to wandering out to greet a desert sunrise with a bleary-eyed gaze and slowed-down pace as Ocean repeats, “She’s working at the pyramid tonight,” which is likely less of a reference to the Egyptian Cleopatra, and more of one to the Las Vegas version in “six-inch heels”. The album keeps up its funked-out spirit with “Lost” and “Monks,” as Ocean propels the tracks with pounding rhythms and loose vocals. As the opening organ chord of “Bad Religion” rings, however, things turn back inward.
“Bad Religion” is a slow-burning, soul-bearing confession of a track which serves as the apex of Ocean’s abilities at the moment. It is both lyrically and musically stunning, with Ocean’s most passionate vocal performances on the entire record, along with tackling the toughest issue in his life, fully shedding light on the unrequited love that “Thinking ‘Bout You” touched on. Ocean released a letter last week freeing him of a secret that he had fallen in love with another man, but the feelings went unreturned. In “Bad Religion,” Ocean seeks to find guidance from a stranger, a taxi cab driver, someone who he can share his secret with and not receive judgment from. As Ocean tells his taxi to “outrun the demons,” he reflects on this seemingly forbidden love, saying “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.” Throughout the track, Ocean toes the line between referring to the love itself as bad religion and wondering if the religion itself is what is bad due to looking down on same-sex relationships. Given the power with which he delivers this song, along with the deeply personal lyrics, the honesty of the track is moving.
Ocean delivers two more stellar performances on the last two proper tracks, “Pink Matter” and “Forrest Gump,” the former containing a searing verse from Outkast’s Andre 3000. Each track exemplifies Ocean’s vocal delivery as emotive yet subtle on Channel Orange, indicative of his incredibly dynamic approach to singing. Ocean’s voice takes many shapes throughout the course of the record–from almost Stevie Wonder-like inflections as he sings about a “stage diving Dalai Lama” on “Monks,” to portions of “Bad Religion” in which he really lets his voice fly that call to mind a young R. Kelly, Ocean’s influences are, at times, right in the forefront. When it comes down to it, however, these slight glimpses of his heroes all contribute to what makes Ocean’s unique voice stand out so far above the rest. Perhaps years from now it will be Channel Orange that listeners feel nostalgic for. We’ll all remember what the day looked and smelled and sounded like when Frank Ocean changed the game forever.