Frank Ocean‘s debut album, “Channel Orange” uses its title to reference the neurological phenomenon grapheme–color synesthesia and the color he perceived during the summer he first fell in love. When Ocean was 19 years old, he first fell in love with a man, and the record details the fall, longing, rejection, heartache and other characters and imagery to create the color perception of that summer. Not much has been made of Ocean’s sexuality, which is outstanding since it should be essentially a non-issue as art is about the universal human experience.
Ignoring caution about his sexuality, his past, and his bankability for his label, Def Jam, Ocean dove in to unconventional urban musical waters. Sounds slip and slide around his songs, standard song structure only occasionally being employed in his compositions. The tracks flow more free-form than your average Hip Hop/R&B artist. This sounds more like Soul music via Animal Collective. His songs are carefully crafted compositions, the sounds surrounding the lyrics, the smooth shiny cover to the words within. In an interview with the magazine, Rap-Up, Ocean said of his record, “It succinctly defines me as an artist for where I am right now and that was the aim. It’s about the stories. If I write 14 stories that I love, then the next step is to get the environment of music around it to best envelop the story and all kinds of sonic goodness.”
“Thinkin Bout You” is his biggest hit, and for a popular song is surprisingly minimalist. Soft synths, a bass drum and digital rimshot are about the only backing to Ocean’s singing. It’s the song that made people sit up and listen, as Ocean sang about that first love, the tornado of emotions and the joy/pain that comes with every moment. In his “Bad Religion,” the lyrics are Ocean’s emotional confession to a taxi driver about a love affair on the down-low. With sweeping strings, bigger percussion and a blowout chorus by the end, it shows the similarity between religious devotion and romantic emotion. The Motown-throwback, “Forrest Gump” uses the titular literary and film character to allude to a teenage crush, and is a clever tongue-in-cheek take in both music and words. The centerpiece of the record, and the true gem of this album is the track, “Pyramids.” The track is essentially two songs in one, the first half being a dancy funk song using the Egyptian/Biblical story of the fall of Cleopatra VII as a love song. But then the synths slow down, the harmonic elements shifting into a different take on the tune, the Cleopatra character now being a present-day working girl, who dances at a strip club called ‘The Pyramid’ to support her superficial, meretricious man. The song is so catchy, so moving, and the instrumentation so polished, that it becomes one of those tracks that you never want to end. The Pyramids fade out slowly, and becomes the pillar of the emotional record.
Channel Orange appeared on numerous critics’ year-end top albums lists. It was named the best album of 2012 by The A.V. Club, Billboard, Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Tribune, Consequence of Sound, Entertainment Weekly, The Guardian, Los Angeles Times, musicOMH, The Sydney Morning Herald, Now, Paste, PopMatters, Slant Magazine, Spin, The Washington Post, and Jon Pareles of The New York Times. The album was also ranked number two by Allmusic, Ann Powers, BBC, Complex, Exclaim!, Filter, Mojo, Pitchfork Media, and Rolling Stone, number three by Clash, Jim DeRogatis, NME, State, and Time, and number five by Uncut. In his top-10 list for the Los Angeles Times, Lawrence K. Ho called it “the most magnetic record of the year” and wrote that it “feels like a work that as the years pass will only grow in stature.” It was definitely one of my favorite records of 2012, it won the Grammy for “Best Urban Contemporary Album” and deserves some serious attention as an art piece.