Yesterday we were invited to SARM Studios to preview Frank Ocean’s debut album channel ORANGE, a 17-track escapade into a world created, narrated and performed by a key player in the “post-everything” generation. Before the head of A&R at Def Jam (who flew in for one day specifically to play the LP off her iPod) pressed play, Ocean briefly introduced the album from his home in L.A via iChat saying very little but thanking us all for attending.
channel ORANGE is by all accounts a sophisticated, deeply complex and heartfelt offering littered with philosophical character-lead stories, social-political commentaries and a wealth of exciting influences. It’s an album quintessentially of its era, but one that proudly boasts the sensibilities of some of the defining sounds of the bygones.
Musically speaking Ocean pulls (and pushes) from every direction. He bravely and successfully builds bridges between prog-R&B & prog-Rock and shrouds much of his album in a heavy blanket of Soul (at times, dare I say Neo-Soul). But also cleverly flirts with celestial (Jimi Hendrix inspired) Blues and unadulterated Pop.
He lives up to his storyteller reputation too, especially on songs like ‘Bad Religion’, a track about a cab ride he takes with a Muslim driver in which the two have a conversation about faith – in parts even singing a religious phase in Arabic (a rousing moment). His knack for twisting perspectives is another testament to how impressive a songwriter he is – often alternating between characters and narratives, leaving much to the listeners interpretation and… imagination (a talent that has and will most probably continue to go over some heads).
Not all the songs featured on channel ORANGE are outrightly daring however – some do step back off the proverbial ledge (these are the few moments that remind me most of the weaker parts of his Nostalgia ULTRA tape), yet none feel too contrived or diluted.
Refreshingly though the album highlights how good a singer Ocean is too and how powerful and razor sharp his voice really can be – a fact that he has sometimes hidden beneath his previous releases (a clever tactic for any songwriter). The Andre 3000 assisted ‘Pink Matter’ is a particularly special moment when seemingly out of nowhere he unleashes the full thrust of a voice we never really knew existed - it results in a near-primal scream.
At this point it would be naive (not to mention unprofessional) of me to brand this ‘a classic album’, but what I can say (with confident hope) is that it has the potential to make a significant cultural impact. What Frank Ocean offers with channel ORANGE is a new way of approaching a long impoverished sector of music and with it brings restored faith in that it will inspire a generation, (re)affirming them that genuine creativity can prevail.
In all channel ORANGE is a confident offering from a vulnerable artist, quietly secure in his abilities. It’s a courageous debut, rich in colour and content and one not necessarily made with a mainstream audience in mind – which I guess is probably the most exciting thing about it.
Channel ORANGE is out July 17th. Listen to it’s lead single ‘Pyramids’ here.