SO HAVE YOU HEARD that Frank Ocean is bisexual? Of course you have. A couple of weeks ago, everyone from your Great Aunt Gertrude to Beyonce was talking about the crooner’s unexpected revelation. How will the more conservative figures in the hip hop community respond to this? Did he just come out of the closet as a marketing tactic? Is he dating Anderson Cooper? Those, to name a few, were just a few of the thousands of questions being argued into the ground both online and off.
Just a few days later, though, all the debates and deliberations came to a screeching halt. Last Monday, Ocean changed the conversation by dropping yet another stunner: his jaw-dropping debut album, Channel Orange. It’s a career-making record, one that will elevate the New Orleans native from an underground favorite to a fully-fledged superstar.
This is no mindless radio schlock we’re talking about, however. Ocean has delivered a mature, sonically cohesive album—no easy feat in our post-ringtone era. At just 24, Ocean has the vision, technical ability and musical IQ of an artist well beyond his years. On Orange, there are echoes of influences as diverse as Al Green, Smokey Robinson, and Rose Royce, all the way to Elton John, Stevie Wonder and even D’Angelo. He doesn’t ape or bite these artists’ styles, but internalizes and reconfigures them, like a master chef creating a new dish based on flavors from his favorite childhood meals.
What’s perhaps most remarkable about the album is that it’s truly an album. Together, Channel Orange’s 17 tracks form a consistent, captivating, meticulously crafted whole. The record flows from song to song so seamlessly Ocean could have borrowed an album title from Sum 41: All Killer, No Filler. There’s purpose and clarity in both the songwriting and performances, and listeners can’t help but strap themselves in for the ride as Ocean explores a breadth of introspective motifs—love, regret, socioeconomic tension, and everything in between.
Below, we walk you through all 17 of Channel Orange’s heartrending, atmospheric songs.
A quick note before we begin: We’ve included audio via YouTube, but the songs are slightly sped up from their original versions. To best enjoy Channel Orange, it’s worth dropping 10 bucks to buy it. You won’t regret it, we promise.
Ocean begins Channel Orange by continuing the video game motif found throughout Nostalgia, Ultra. It’s fascinating to see a young musician so cognizant of the importance of continuity in his work. The track itself is brief, but gives insight into the depths of Ocean’s artistic process while setting the tone for the album ahead. Extra props for the old school Playstation start-up sound—brings me back to the days of Tekken and Medal of Honor.
2. Thinkin’ Bout You
Even though it first dropped last summer—and despite the fact that I’ve personally jacked up its YouTube play count by at least five figures—”Thinkin’ Bout You” still hits me as hard as ever. There’s a noticeable polish to the audio; the mix is much improved and the snare hits are crisper than on the fuzzy version that was leaked a few months ago. Sometimes that last layer of sheen can detract from a song’s earnestness and charm, but it really does wonders here. The only aspect I’m having trouble getting behind is the echo/reverb self-hype-man-thing during the bridge. It sounds like a Garageband edit. You’re better than that, Frank.
Essentially a skit wrapped in the guise of an actual song, “Fertilizer” caught me a little off-guard. The 40-second long James Fauntleroy cover is a little facetious and ends rather abruptly, but it still stands up to the rest of the album in terms of emotional resonance.
4. Sierra Leone
Pulsating and ethereal, “Sierra Leone” floats along and draws you into a steady trance before giving you a taste of Ocean’s rapping skills. In a parabolic sing-song voice, Ocean drops eight bars of lines that are more intended to be felt than understood. Soon after, the song bursts into layer upon layer of bells, chimes, piano, strings and harmonized vocals. All I can say is that I’m really glad there were no drugs involved in the writing of this review, because the song’s sensory output is a little intense, to say the least. But it never becomes overwhelming—even with all of the instruments and sounds coming at you, the songwriting and production are absorbing without being obnoxiously grandiose.
5. Sweet Life
“Sweet Life” picks up on the tasteful restraint of the previous track, dropping from the expansive aural experience of “Sierra Leone” to the simple combination of Ocean’s voice and a funky Wurlitzer. When the drums kick in, the resulting groove is so deep that if you aren’t compelled to bob your head, you’re either deaf or from Utah. The song continues to build until the thick horn arrangements behind the chorus really set things off, as Ocean wails in condemnation of the sheltered nature of a privileged upbringing.
6. Not Just Money
A bit of a comedown after “Sweet Life,” this interlude is exactly what your ears need and helps to give the album a real sense of ebb and flow.
7. Super Rich Kids (Feat. Earl Sweatshirt)
When I first heard the opening to this track, it immediately called to mind Elton John’s “Bennie and The Jets.” Is that just me? Probably. Here, Ocean delves deeper into the lifestyles of excessively rich youth, and explores how growing up with money effects an individual’s formative years. Through his words, the listener truly feels the weight of all the idle time and aimless days—Ocean conjures images of joy rides in fast cars, bowls of marijuana and the munchies, and unnecessary purchases. The vacuousness of it all seems to both fascinate and frighten Ocean, who sings longingly of “searching for a real love.” Earl Sweatshirt’s verse is laid-back almost to point of droning; it provides a stimulating, if unspectacular, counterbalance to Ocean’s passionate crooning.
8. Pilot Jones
A vivid tale of drugs and escapism, “Pilot Jones” follows the misadventures of a habitual user and briefly examines the countless problems that stem from addiction. The sound of a jet engine high in the air acts as the perfect bridge to the next track.
9. Crack Rock
As its title makes obvious, this track continues Ocean’s survey of the narcotics world, as the story of a degenerate crack cocaine addict unfolds over a disturbingly up-tempo organ beat. The disconnect between the heavy lyrical content and frenetic backing track makes for a strange, yet funky combination. That said, however, “Crack Rock” is perhaps the most forgettable song on the album.
Reminiscent of works by masters like Stevie Wonder and Todd Rundgren, “Pyramids” is a soaring 10-minute epic that punctuates the middle section of Channel Orange with a series of dreamy movements and electro sounds. The first few minutes find Ocean crying out to his lost “Cleopatra.” before the song suddenly takes an abrupt left turn. Halfway through, the mood and melody significantly darken, and we discover Ocean isn’t so much longing for his Cleopatra as he is hunting her. As the song fades out, a roaming instrumental passage gradually releases the intensity built up from the slow, grinding segments that preceded it.
Building upon the themes of the previous track, “Lost” finds Ocean’s character evolving from the emotionally vulnerable, affection-seeking loner at the beginning of “Pyramids,” to a far more confident, assertive individual. With its slippery-wet sounding guitars, I can’t help but think of Jay-Z’s “Big Pimpin’” beat. Very apropos.
12. White (Feat. John Mayer)
Another palette-cleansing interlude that sets us up for a narrative shift. Mayer’s gratuitous reverb and slick bluesy playing have a little bit of an elevator music-quality—which is appropriate, since we’re just waiting for the next song, anyway.
A flurry of crash cymbals act as the perfect remedy for the daydream that “White” may have had you floating in. Here, Ocean finally refrains from singing in character, and lets us in on his own experiences from the road: “Mosh pits and wet tits.” Doesn’t sound like it’s all that bad out there, Bob Seger.
14. Bad Religion
If you saw Ocean’s captivating live performance of this song on Jimmy Fallon, then allow us to allay your fears: Yes, the studio version is just as awesome. Introspective and insightful, “Bad Religion” illuminates Ocean’s views on God and theology. A church organ sustains throughout the track, eliciting images of churches and choirs, all while the singer rails against the dogmatic traditions of such belief systems. Coupled with the recent revelation of Ocean’s bisexuality, the song takes on an even more complex and pointed connotation. If you take ownership of a situation, then it’s yours to control. That’s exactly what Frank Ocean is doing.
15. Pink Matter (Feat. Andre 3000)
This track drifts along sweetly and steadily until about the halfway mark, at which point a hyper-funky slap bass drops downbeat bombs all over the place. With that, Three Stacks returns from his exile on the planet Hoth and delivers one of the dopest guest spots I’ve heard in a good long while. The last minute or so slides into an outro as soulful as chicken and waffles that kicks up distinct memories of throwback Outkast classics.
16. Forrest Gump
A profession of love for a male companion, Ocean’s Forrest Gump is “running” through his mind on this track. No matter what you think about the man, he’s open and honest and that’s something you have to respect.
Subdued as it may be, “End” is a worthy conclusion to a truly unforgettable debut album. The muted tones provide a welcome opportunity to reflect on the intricately crafted and infinitely provocative work of art you just experienced. It’s a rare thing to witness the birth of a musical icon—with Channel Orange, Frank Ocean has blessed us all with the chance to do just that.
Previous installments of “The Verdict”: