Frank Ocean, 'Channel Orange'
By Jonathan Nelson
July 27, 2012
Jonathan Nelson writes on theology and music. He currently resides in Durham, NC, and is pursuing graduate work at Duke Divinity School.
To the casual listener, Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange is bland. Certainly, it is sonically pleasing. But to the inattentive listener, Ocean’s Def Jam debut is background music at best. With few exceptions, Ocean does not flout his vocal range—quite atypical of his R&B tradition—and tends to come off drab and monotone. The instrumentation does not necessarily help him in this regard. Boasting no tricks or thrills, it simply carries Ocean’s vocals. On first listen, Channel Orange bores.
That is until Ocean hints that something quite new and profound is happening just below the surface listen. When the listener catches the hint, they are pulled into Frank Ocean’s colorful worlds. To the attentive ear, this might happen in the first song “Thinkin Bout You” when it becomes clear that Ocean is artfully expressing the anxieties of relationships in a series of colloquialisms. It might happen during “Super Rich Kids” when one notes that Ocean is not just touting his wealth or glorifying substance abuse, but exposing pale substitutes for love. Whenever it might happen, the experience is not at all unlike the moment at the end of the Sixth Sense when the audience realizes that something else has been happening all along. Knowing this, they watch it again. This time catching all the subtle hints previously missed.
Prior to the release of Channel Orange, Ocean posted a letter detailing his first love with a man. It is tempting to read these circumstances into Channel Orange. But to do so is to entirely miss the point. However, Ocean’s “coming-out” letter does tell us a lot about his craft. By telling the story of his first love, he demonstrates that stories can convey far more than concepts, labels, and ideas. Ocean does the same in Channel Orange. He tells stories and creates worlds in order to convey deeper concepts, ideas, and emotions. As he states in the letter, “By now I’ve written two albums, this [Channel Orange] being the second. I wrote to keep myself busy and sane. I wanted to create worlds that were rosier than mine. I tried to channel overwhelming emotions.”
Ocean’s worlds are littered with imagery of affluence, sex, and drugs. His description of these worlds may be quite objectionable to the listener (hence the explicit content warning.) Some of these worlds are rosy on the surface (i.e. “Sierra Leone,” or “Sweet Life”). But often, the imagery of these worlds is a mask. Once the mask is removed, there is much pain, anxiety, and longing. Take for instance, “Super Rich Kids.” Following a description of abundant affluence and substance (ab)use, Ocean croons earnestly, “Real love. I’m searching for a real love.” Then there is “Crack Rock,” which names the destructive consequence of drug use. These worlds are no rosier than ours.
In the process of discovering the subtle depths of Ocean’s creations, the music becomes surprisingly intricate and intriguing. Although Ocean does not often demonstrate his vocal capacity, it is evident in songs like “Thinkin Bout You” and “Pink Matter.” The strength of Ocean’s voice is in its consistency and delicacy. The instrumentation compliments this consistency and delicacy by shunning extravagance. It seems meticulously chosen to carry Ocean’s vocals: strings bolster Ocean’s sad sentiment on “Lost” and the airy synths on “Pilot Jones” augment the content of Ocean’s crooning. The one exception to this is “Pyramids”—where the hooks and textures are more interesting than anything Ocean has to say. The inverse is happening here. Ocean’s rhymes and repetitions serve the instrumentation. While the subtlety of the musicianship on the whole of Channel Orange is appreciated amid the extravagance of the industry, “Pyramids” leaves the listener wanting more.
Channel Orange was not intended for a casual listen—although it was crafted in a way that it could be just that. Frank Ocean is trying to say a few things. And these things are better expressed in more subtle ways. In the listening of Channel Orange Frank Ocean reminds us that if we are not listening carefully, we might entirely miss out on what someone is trying to tell us.