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Neosoul/hip-hop singer-songwriter Frank Ocean likes to take chances, with both his suitably strange music and authentic, brutally honest public persona. Hopefully, with growing critical acclaim and increasingly prodigious talent, he will continue to be a vital musical game-changer long after Justin Bieber returns to the suburbs.
At the end of 2012, as music critics and fans of good music compiled their top ten lists for the year, one particular album featured almost unanimously, if not in the number one spot, then almost always high in the top 5.
From a varied and opposing array of publications, music blogs and other taste making media outlets, including the more Americana and indie-focused Uncut and Mojo magazines, the notoriously fussy Rolling Stone magazine, hipster favourite Pitchfork(Media).com and the iPod playlists of everyone from Beyoncé and the Obamas to Lena Dunham and Nick Cave, general consensus held that Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange, a head spinning collection of innovative and intelligent neosoul hip-hop and high concept electronica, was not only the most critically acclaimed album of 2012, but probably the most important music created in the last ten years.
Ocean was born Christopher Breaux in 1987, and was an early precocious talent heavily influenced by the eclectic music tastes of his mother, that included Lloyd Webber musicals, singer-songwriters like Carly Simon and Jackson Browne, as well as 70s funk and early hip-hop.
In his teens, he had already recorded an impressive collection of mix tapes and demos in his hometown of New Orleans, exhibiting a healthy song-writing evolution. After Hurricane Katrina destroyed his home and, more importantly, his recording equipment in 2005, he relocated to Los Angeles armed with a compelling audio résumé, which quickly helped him integrate into influential circles within the music industry.
Based on his raw song writing talent and ear for a pop hook, he was quickly snapped up by some of the biggest names in pop music as a songwriter, helping define and streamline hits for John Legend, Beyonce and a young Justin Bieber. Yet increasingly eager to break out and create his own musical identity, Ocean – who had by now legally changed his name, inspired by George Clooney’s character in the film Ocean’s Eleven – joined the renowned Odd Future hip-hop clique where he began collaborating with other up-and-coming names in progressive hip-hop, including Tyler The Creator.
He released his first official mix tape Nostalgia, Ultra on the Def Jam label, and the recording, a heady mix of earnest lyrics soulfully delivered over catholic beats and unexpected source material (most notably The Eagles’ Hotel California), quickly become an underground favourite. Attracting the attention of Kanye West, Frank was invited to contribute to the West/ Jay Z collaboration album Watch The Throne, featuring prominently on three of the album’s tracks.
In between touring with Odd Future, including prominent slots at the Lollapalooza and Coachella festivals, as well as continuing with a number of high-profile collaborations, Ocean began recording the kernels for his first original album Channel Orange.
A demo for the song Thinkin’ About You, a track originally intended for singer Bridget Kelly, was leaked online and, on the strength of that original demo, the general public’s interest was finally piqued to the emerging talent of Frank Ocean.
Channel Orange was released in July 2012. With a strong and personalised online presence – actively involved on almost every important social media platform – and a number of high-profile television and festival appearances, Frank Ocean became a veritable hipster household name, and Channel Orange, with its lead singles Pyramids, Super Rich Kids as well as Thinkin’ About You, became the essential soundtrack of summer 2012. And justifiably so, as Channel Orange contained some of most original, most eclectic sounds and catchiest lyrics ever captured on one single record.
Since Nostalgia, Ultra, Frank Ocean has consciously concocted a distinctive sound that has enabled him to stand out from the usual hip-hop and urban pop pack, genres that, while initially ground-breaking and innovative, had begun to rely heavily on clichéd cookie-cut composition and proven hit-making recipes.
And while Ocean is not the first hip-hop artist to mix minimalistic beats, electronica glitchiness and sweeping techno synth soundscapes with stream-of-consciousness lyrics delivered with clumsy but quaint rhythms – underground hip-hop from both the US and Europe have been stretching the genre in all directions since the 1990s – he is the first artist to truly give the music a strong pop sensibility to it all. There is something instantly likable about the Frank Ocean sound, unavoidable to ignore no matter what one’s opinion is about the tired tropes of hip-hop music and its attached lifestyle.
To be sure, when Kanye West himself arrived on the music scene in 2004 with his debut College Dropout, armed with that slightly altered prescience of how the future of hip-hop should sound, critics of every ilk were besides themselves on how important his vision and music were. Yet, West eventually fell into the same traps that so many pop music artists of all genres had done before: the persona overwhelmed the work. Not to be too harsh on West, because he does remain an influential player, albeit most effectively in the background of developing new talent (like Frank Ocean) and not when he’s just phoning in raps over Otis Redding songs, but he has lost sight of how musically malleable the hip-hop / soul genre can be, not only artistically but commercially.
Fans of music, good quality music of any kind, yearn to be constantly challenged intelligently with fresh, new ideas. Ideas that don’t necessarily need to be far outside of the most discernible listener’s comfort zone.
So far Frank Ocean has checked all those boxes: good, strong pop music that doesn’t sound like the song before it on the playlist. Music that is a little more substantial than this week’s teenage party flavour, music that makes you prick up your ears, pick up a phone and tell your friends, and most importantly, music that makes you want to get off your ass and dance.
On Channel Orange, with the help of some of the most innovative minds in underground and pop hip-hop including Pharrell Williams, OutKast and Malay, Ocean invokes a vast and diverse collection of conceptual stimuli, from the elastic and cinematic soundscapes of Pink Floyd and post-rock, the enigmatic lyrical idiosyncrasies of David Bowie and early Prince, to the sensual ghosts of Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye.
Purging an overreliance on pre-recorded samples – a well-honed hip-hop trope and a crutch he felt had diminished the power of the Nostalgia, Ultra recording – Ocean worked consciously with multi-instrumentalist Malay in creating a sophisticated organic live sound for the album.
While the beats across the songs are the clipped, classic 808/303 drum machine sound enhanced with subtle live drums, the enrichment of live bass, keyboards and, in particular, funk rock guitar sounds, give Channel Orange a wholly more appealing improvised tone, more akin to the old school soul recordings of the 60s and 70s than modern, more manufactured r n’b recordings.
On Pyramids, without doubt the album’s most accomplished and explored track, a collection of out-of-place, yet not entirely unpleasant, techno synth arpeggio motifs link an elaborate journey from whimsical high funk to an atmospheric slow jam, complimented by a strong lyrical time-travelling metaphor that connects the feisty, but ultimately doomed Cleopatra to a modern-day exotic dancer fallen on hard times.
On its release Channel Orange garnered more than its share of positive reviews from the most influential pop culture critics. The aggregate website Metacritic correlated all online and media outlet reviews to award the album an overall 92% rating, the highest for any album in any genre for the year.
Jody Rosen of Rolling Stone called Ocean a “torch singer” for the new wave of hip-hop soul, and said Channel Orange would be a benchmark for all future hip-hop releases. Pitchfork Media, who notoriously hold music to the highest standard, gave the album a near perfect 9.5 rating, elaborately describing Ocean and his work as “(a) spirit of confident, open-minded redefinition; he’s living in his own world, but also fascinated with what’s around him.”
State magazine grandiosely, but fairly, compared the album to the Beach Boys’ complex post-modern pop opus Pet Sounds, calling it “a masterful, dynamic and evocative collection of conversations between his inner-self and the listener.”
The album has charted high within the Top 40 in all international territories, including non-English speaking countries in Europe and South America. The album has been certified gold – selling over 500,000 copies – in the US, Great Britain and Australia.
Over the course of a year since its release Channel Orange has been recognised for every music award conceived, including nominations for Grammys, MTV VMAs, Brit Awards and the BET Soul Train Awards. While only nominated for the Grammys’ Album of The Year, Song of The Year (‘Thinkin’ About You’) and Best New Artist, Ocean did win its Best Urban Contemporary award. Frank Ocean was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of 2012/13, and the premier online Webby award for Person of the Year 2013.
Just prior to the release of Channel Orange, Ocean released a statement on his Tumblr page that revealed that he was gay, and that he intended this revelation as a means to free himself and his work from the constraints of the overly masculine and often homophobic culture of the hip-hop community.
It was a brave move, but one that was welcomed by the majority of his peers and more importantly his growing fan base. The disclosure, he urged, was not a cheap ploy to publicise his new album, but rather to purposefully fulfil his wish to live honestly and openly through his music.
Admittedly the revelation had tainted reaction to the Channel Orange album, something Ocean has been keen to deflect as opaquely as possible, communicating through social media that not too much should be read from the album’s lyrics regarding his love life or his opinions other than the fact that, as has been noted by several commentators, that Ocean does struggle with issues of his identity, both public and private, but that, like the creation of all great music, the catharsis of true art is all Frank Ocean needs to be concerned with right now.
So far, during a very busy 2013 that has seen him touring extensively as well continuing his collaborations with friends like Tyler, The Creator and others from the Odd Future fold, Ocean has only hinted at what a follow-up to Channel Orange might sound like, telling MTV recently that he is listening to and dissecting a lot of complex music, including the later Beatles albums and new underground electronica, that may well inform where he wants to take his music in the future.
Meanwhile, as rumours gather around collaborations with everyone from Adele to Depeche Mode, a burgeoning film career and media-fuelled feuds with Chris Brown and Stevie Wonder regarding his sexuality, Frank Ocean rightfully insists on letting his music speak for him: “Keep writing, keep living, keep loving…and when the ink dries and the pages turn to dust, so will we” (from the song “Dust”).
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