I have been a Frank Ocean fan since “Acura Integurl” and Nostalgia/Ultra reaffirmed my love for emo boys with dark skin tones. I can’t help it; I am a sucker for wit, R&B, and frustrated love. Ocean’s presence on the mixtape front, has finally ignited a career that now commands above average rates for sold-out performances. Not to mention selective collaborations with hip hop’s elite and a buzz that, in the pre-Internet era, used to take an artist three platinum albums, a scandal, and at least four dope ass videos to acquire. He garnered all this hype and praise having never done a televised performance (or even dropped an official album) until last Monday.
Channel ORANGE debuted at #2 this week on the Billboard charts and skyrocketed to #1 on iTunes upon its digital release, last week. In a recent interview with BBC, Ocean explains that the album’s debut was done purposely to help combat leaks, similar to the release of Jay-Z and Kanye’s Watch The Throne. Channel ORANGE has garnered universal critical acclaim over the last week and a half, thrusting Ocean from a somewhat underground obscurity to the mainstream news. I have to say that I am impressed by the strategy behind Ocean's debut (the open letter on his Tumblr, the digital release date bump, the Jimmy Fallon performance). However impressive his strategy has been, though, nothing impresses more than his art.
The music industry has been disappointing me for the last few years. Songs and artist identities are predictable and formulaic; and originality is an endangered species in the mainstream. Very few visible black and brown artists are making conscious choices to be progressive with their art, despite the fact that black and brown people are in constant need of exactly that – progression.
No, I am not saying that ALL mainstream black music today lacks progression (relax), but many artists aren’t really talking about anything that challenges our culture to think. Music on the mainstream hip hop front is mostly about partying, fat booties, drugs and being wealthy (or pretending to be) and male R&B stars today (Chris Brown, Trey Songz, The Dream, Miguel, Usher, etc) are for the most part, still only talking explicitly about sex (which is cool, just not new).
In response, the indie DIY movement has brought about a wave of fresh faces that simply don't give a fuck…and rightfully so. They have managed to manifest their own brands and distribute their message through the beautiful beast that is the Internet. However, while true that the world has met promising acts like Kendrick Lamar, Big KRIT, Tyler The Creator, Joey Bada$$, The Weeknd, and A$AP Rocky, the scene is still inundated with mediocrity, low budget visuals, weak rhymes, and wack style.
So, it's refreshing, to say the least, that Ocean (a Generation Y artist) has been able to make a name for himself independently only to then be part of one of the biggest record deals in music today, all while being unsure of his sexuality and mastering the art of mystery. You may not like them, but Frank Ocean and the whole Odd Future crew have made a statement that is worth respecting. They have made being totally weird, cool again. You could even say that Ocean himself has devised the following formula:
Sexually confused male artist + black skin + headbands + masculine dominated Hip Hop culture + lyrics of heartache = Yup, still dope.
Wait, really? How is that possible, though? Hip hop and black men, in general, are known to be pretty judgmental of gay culture, so how has Ocean managed to maintain and gain respect from publications across the globe and people like Russell Simmons, Jay-Z, Q-Tip, Dream Hampton, Busta Rhymes, etc? Well, the release of Channel ORANGE has solidified the answer.
He. Is. Really. Talented.
Let’s be honest, we all know you don’t need talent to have a hit song and make bank as a “musician” today, but actually having it (talent) seems to trump everything (sexual deviancy, dressing like an idiot, drug addiction, etc). Ocean’s talent has not only allowed many of us to take a closer look at him and be accepting of his lifestyle, but it has forced us to look at his entire generation. The album, in all its emotional glory, paints the picture of exactly what is going on in my generation. We are all a little confused, a little heartbroken, and overly expressive but not sure why. We’re dealing with a lot of "grown up problems," overstimulation of the senses, a shitty economy, parents who don’t want to stay married anymore or fathers who were never really around. On top of it all, our media glorifies vanity and all things material, persuading our psyche into thinking we can all be millionaires by age 26.
Frank Ocean’s work has challenged listeners to think about the music they listen to and the bullshit they see on TV. He creates a window into the world of Generation Y that induces self-reflection amongst its members and a raw perspective for those outside of it. He has challenged listeners to progress and truth is, many of us in this culture are starving for forward movement.
Channel ORANGE is a perceptive, painful, semi-political and inspiring body of work that gives us all hope for the future of songwriting and music. He talks about loving a man, loving a woman, the black queen of yesterday and the fallen black queen of today, the crack epidemic, lost rich kids and girls my age who get way too caught up. Although he respectfully declined Kanye’s offer to collaborate, Ocean does team up with Andre 3000 and John Mayer on tracks 12 and 15 (both collabs are great). The album overall is a bit of a trip and by knowing a little more about his sexual orientation right before it was released, you are forced to dissect every song like, “Damn, what did he say?”
The album opens with “Thinking Bout You,” which debuted at No. 49 on the Billboard Charts when he released it as a single last year. “You know you were my first time/A new feel,” Ocean croons. The song mixes a shaky falsetto hook, ambient production and pointed lyrics of both regret and confession. “Super Rich Kids,” which illuminates a careless, carefree lifestyle that is rampantly glamorized is nothing less than a Gen Y anthem. Raised in New Orleans, Ocean encountered this way of life first hand when he became a LA transplant after Hurricane Katrina. “Too many bottles of this wine we can’t pronounce/Too many white lies and white lines/Super rich kids with nothing but loose ends/Super rich kids with nothing but fake friends.”
A few tracks later, he follows with “Pyramids”, which paints the sad dissension of Cleopatra from Egyptian goddess of the pyramids to traitor and the present day fall of “Cleopatra” who dances at the Pyramid – both leaving the black queen’s throne empty.
“Bad Religion” takes you through a taxi ride where he cries of young, unrequited love on a track with a soft melody of strings that allows the range and pain in his voice to take center stage. It is one of two tracks on the album where he uses the words “him” or “he”. (“I could never make him love me/ Make him love me.”) “Forrest Gump” is the other. Far more revealing and illustrative of a moment that even I felt when I was 17 watching my high school crush play varsity football from behind my thick-framed glasses (not the trendy kind, the lame kind). (“You run my mind boy, runnin’ on my mind boy/Forrest Gump. I know you Forrest/ I know you wouldn’t hurt a beetle but you’re so buff & so strong/I’m nervous Forrest. Forrest Gump.”). Ocean’s honest disposition in these two songs may have just made one black boy feel OK with loving another black boy.
The most impactful track to me, however, would have to be “Crack Rock”. With his voice, Ocean draws the effects of drug life on a canvas of crooked cops and black incarceration.
My brother get popped
And don't no one hear the sound
Don't no one hear the rounds
Don't no one hear the shells
Don't no one hear a sound
Don't no one disturb the peace for riot
Don't no one disrupt nirvana
Don't no one wanna blow the high
All in all, his image, his writing, his honesty and his first major label album are things that I am happy to say came from my generation. We are all a little screwed up, but it’s OK. Expression is the first step in finding clarity. He has provoked those who got their hands on Channel ORANGE to think and listen. Two skills that often fall by the wayside in American society but are profoundly essential in being able to move it forward.