By Brendan Krovatin
Although awards have not been given and results are still unknown, one of the most recognized albums of 2012 was Frank Ocean’s debut, “Channel Orange.”
iTunes said that it was the Best Album of 2012. Pitchfork, a music review website, which is often blatantly critical, rated the album 9.5 out of 10, with the rating of “Best New Music.”
Among the four most important Grammy categories, Ocean and “Channel Orange” have been nominated for three, including Best New Artist, Record of the Year and Album of the Year. It would seem that the odds are in his favor.
But what is it about this record that has made it such a success in the eyes of the music world? What does the album channel, if you will, that makes it so appealing?
Perhaps the most apparent appeal is the diversity of the sound. That’s something that cannot be said for a lot of records made today. A band will usually work within a style, resulting in songs that have a very similar sound—–some even the same sound. But Ocean refuses to do this, brushing aside those barriers. Each song is unique in its influence, though each has a distinctly original sound—-what I will call a “Frank Ocean” sound.
For instance, take the song nominated for Record of the Year, “Thinkin’ ’Bout You,” and another song, “Sweet Life.” Both have a distinctly Ocean sound in the sense that both have a sort of slow, driving beat, something that you want to listen to with your headphones on, but also something that could really get a party going. But on an influential level, each song differs significantly.
“Thinkin’ ’Bout You” has a very classic R&B beat, layered over with a spacey synthesizer lead, which sounds like something that could have been on the album “Coexist” by the xx. The song also does an excellent job of displaying Ocean’s vocal range, where he goes from deep in the verse to very high falsetto in the chorus and mid-range in the bridge.
“Sweet Life,” the fifth song on the album could easily have been on a Stevie Wonder record in the 1970s. With a driving piano lead, a healthy padding of strings and Ocean singing mostly in his mid-range, a very smooth Motown sound comes through. Wonder’s influence is particularly apparent in the backing vocals that Ocean lays on the track, especially preceding the final chorus.
Another noteworthy song on the album is “Pyramids,” for what it offers musically, but also, and perhaps more importantly, for what it offers lyrically. It is rare these days to see such thought put into lyrics.
The song is a 10-minute-long epic dealing with deception and riches, the latter being a recurring theme throughout the album. It begins by recounting the tale of Cleopatra, the “black queen.” The narrator seems to be both her lover and a citizen, one who has watched her take her leave and is hurt by it. Her departure may be symbolic of infidelity, as she “[lies] down with Samson.”
In the outro, the queen “No [longer] lives, no more serpent in her room,” and she has died, however symbolically. Brilliantly, Ocean contrasts this Cleopatra with a modern day girl working at the Pyramid, perhaps a reference to the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas. The girl is far from queenly. It would appear that she is a prostitute. The narrator, now a customer, lives decadently in the Las Vegas sense of the word, but finds, in the final verse, that the “love” he is receiving from this girl “ain’t free anymore.”
Though this explanation may seem a little long-winded, it appropriately shows the intricacy with which the lyrics were constructed, and this is undoubtedly another reason why Ocean’s album has been so successful among music fans.
So, what is left to say about “Channel Orange”? Its variety and tone, its references to new and old and the stories it tells all come together perfectly to make a real work of art. In an age of rehashed clichés and repetitive beats that are lyrically devoid, Ocean’s album shines unlike any other. I would be shocked and upset if he did not walk away with all three Grammys for which he was nominated.