Album Review: Frank Ocean – Channel Orange

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To build the great Giza Pyramid it took the Egyptians 20 years. 20 years of intensive, backbreaking labor. There were obstacles that stood in the way such as: sand storms, architectural limitations, warfare and a basic misunderstanding of what the pharaohs were trying to accomplish. Despite those obstacles the pyramid was finished and has stood the test of time so that today despite looting, erosion and general wear the great pyramid still stands as a marvel of ingenuity and genius.

Frank Ocean has constructed a great pyramid of his own with his proper debut album, Channel Orange. Through obstacles of being in one of the most hyped underground hip-hop groups around (Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All or OFWGKTA or simply Odd Future), coming out as gay to a notoriously homophobic musical community was one thing. But moving to Los Angeles to start over after his recording studio in New Orleans was swallowed whole by Hurricane Katrina, has enabled Ocean to become a sensation.

He started out as a songwriter and that experience has served him well as you might know if you listened to his mix-tape Nostalgia, Ultra or the Dat Piff release of Dream Killa. He’s an anomaly in R & B and hip-hop circles, aside from the obvious. He has an incredible musical sense for hooks that he feels were great and can be great again. Ocean got in trouble for sampling the Eagles’ “Hotel California” and has displayed an affinity for bands such as Coldplay and Radiohead. In trying to figure out who the predecessor to such an anomaly might be it suddenly became oh so obvious…Prince.

Ocean, like Prince, refuses to be held down by convention. He is, as Jamie Foxx put it, “breaking ground” on a career that is going to span decades if he keeps it up at this pace. Channel Orange isn’t just good, it’s brilliant. It is epic in its scope and the chances he takes turn out to be breathtaking examples of that brilliance. On “Super Rich Kids,” a song that sounds like the piano beginning to Elton John’s classic “Bennie and the Jets,” he speaks to the drug-addled, supremely-bored, eternally-spoiled rich kids that permeate the tabloidesque landscape we see every day. It could be construed by some as another black artist talking about being rich and flossing his wares. It is far from that.

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When you truly listen to what Frank Ocean is saying, especially in this song, he is condemning the idiocy of it all. Not to say that having those things isn’t nice, but knowing that it is never enough is the lesson here. The line in the first verse that draws attention to this is “A million one, a million two, a million more will never do.” When will it be enough for the “zany-gnashing” youth that have been raised by nannies and given the keys to the kingdom or as Ocean says, “Daddy’s Jag”? “Pyramids” a nearly ten minute song with a guitar solo from John Mayer takes us on a journey from Cleopatra’s Egypt to present day where he is dating a girl named Cleopatra who is a stripper. In talking about the correlation he speaks of the wealth that she brings him, though he’s unemployed and the feeling that he is becoming a slave to the wealth like Cleopatra of old was a slave to her wealth and the trust she put in her own immortality until that fatal night with the asp.

One of the starkest things in this album is the aversion to becoming your possessions. You are not what you own, Ocean is saying, but you are what you say. In “Pyramids” he says “your love ain’t free no more” and the cost of that love is growing more and more exorbitant as they grow seemingly more and more distant. Much like those early pyramids, Ocean has built his career up one block at a time and as a result has created one of the top-5 albums of 2012. Putting him in the same class as Prince isn’t easy, but when things like this come around it is necessary to stress how perfect the convergence of former Princes, Pharaohs and unrelenting Oceans becomes.

Follow me on Twitter @MattKDeMello and Like us on Facebook  Matt DeMello

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