Hip-hop and R&B isn’t always the most inventive genre in music, especially in the case of R&B music. The genre seems to be stuck in one area and refuses to move away. While The Weeknd put out a trilogy of albums last year that were some of the best sounding R&B albums in quite some time, it failed with it’s songwriting. Frank Ocean’s new album, Channel Orange is one of the few times where R&B music works not only in the music, but also the lyrics.
I was speculative of Frank Ocean at first because of his involvement in Odd Future, but my views began to change with his mixtape, Nostalgia, Ultra from last year. Then his additions to Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch The Throne really got my attention. Now with Channel Orange Ocean is really stepping out and putting together an album that mixes many styles and takes chances.
“Thinkin Bout You” has some mellow synth that works really well with Ocean’s voice, although there’s a hint of auto-tune here and there that doesn’t make much sense given how good of a singer Ocean is (this happens several other times on the album).
“Sierra Leone” has a really atmospheric instrumental, but there’s so little that goes on with Ocean’s vocals and lyrics during the song that it almost ruins it. Although it’s quite short and simple, there’s still a feeling that it goes on for a little too long.
Frank Ocean shows his love for older R&B in the Stevie Wonder flavored “Sweet Life” with Ocean giving some great vocals and the bass that goes in the back is a perfect addition. It’s one of the best moments on the record. Ocean’s lyrics about the rich are great, and another track that brings up the subject of rich people, “Super Rich Kids” can’t add up. Despite adding fellow Odd Future member EARL to the song, it falls short and doesn’t have much to say or add. The keyboards are sloppy and the entire song sounds amateur.
Things start to take off for Channel Orange during the second half with “Pilot Jones” has some dreary electronics and guitars with some slow bass that set the mood of this sexy drug-induced track perfectly. The subject of drugs pops up in “Crack Rock” as well, but this time the music takes a very old school R&B approach and it sounds great. The warm bass and drums sound really organic and while Ocean’s voice might be too loud at moments, it makes the song stand out from others.
“Pyramids” is the centerpiece of the album, and it might be the best song on Channel Orange with it’s mix of ambient, disco, funk, and electronic that swirls through ten minutes. It’s a near perfect song that isn’t quite like anything else going around today. Ocean sounds great and controls the song with his vocals while singing about strip clubs, ancient Egypt and Cleopatra.
One big thing that holds Channel Orange back are the interludes scattered throughout the album. Interludes seem to be all over rap albums, and they almost never work. The same with most of them on Channel Orange. Although “White” sounds great with John Mayer giving his guitar skills to the song, but at less than a minute and a half, I wish it could have been more fleshed out.
There’s more old school R&B on “Monks” with some really skillful bass playing that rules the song. The song hits a groove that really gets the song going before taking a sudden turn to a slower keyboard driven interlude before jumping back. “Pink Matter” has some really odd backing beats that add some slightly disturbing atmosphere. The addition strings work well at first, but things get too loud at moments with the having a burst of loudness for no reason and the switch over to funk is a little sloppy. Andre 3000 comes in and raps a verse that’s typical Andre 3000 style, but it slightly distracting. Although the song goes towards a Sly Stone sound as it ends.
“Bad Religion” has Frank Ocean going for an Usher vocal style and he better than Usher ever has. Organs, strings and handclaps come in over song as it goes on and it all works. (Yes, even the handclaps). Ocean gives one of his best vocals and the lyrics dealing with unrequited love are quite remarkable.
R&B music isn’t a genre that given listeners very much over the years, but every once and while something shows up that has the potential to change things around. Frank Ocean has created a very distinct record that covers disco, funk, soul, R&B and rap. While Channel Orange isn’t perfect and does have several moments that are clearly flawed, there’s too many fantastic songs on here to pay too much attention to the problems. Channel Orange does have one thing that keeps it all together, the theme of disappointment and the realization that things originally thought to great, can actually drain you. From drugs, to money, to religion and God, to sex and labels.
Rating: 7.8 out of 10.