The Frank Ocean we know came to us after a membership into Odd Future Wolfgang Kill Them All. It was there that Ocean began to adopt OFWGKTA’s do-it-yourself attitude that would ultimately propel him from an unknown already-signed artist to the biggest oversight in recent record label history. Through OFWGKTA, Ocean learned the important lesson of taking control over his own movement, resulting in the flourished and realized Nostalgia, Ultra. mixtape. That project came not just from heartbreak, but from the gumption to come out of the shadows, dig deep and write what would essentially become his artistic destiny. All that became even clearer after Frank published a heartfelt letter on his Tumblr on July 4th, citing the exact inspiration behind Nostalgia, Ultra. and the much anticipated debut album Channel Orange.
Channel Orange, according to Frank, succinctly defines him as an artist. Good news is he followed through. The album is a storyteller’s album. In fact, it’s an immensely inclusive R&B album. Ocean runs through a gamut of stories and situations in this album – untimely parenthood in “Sierra Leone,” the ignorance that often times comes with financial privilege in “Sweet Life,” crack addiction in “Crack Rock,” dating a stripper in “Pyramids.” As schizophrenic as the album may sound, the stories fall neatly in place with the tripped out sonics put in place by the production team that includes Frank Ocean, Malay, Om’mas Keith, and Pharrell Williams.
Even the tracks that are heavy on the social commentary (“Super Rich Kids,” “Sierra Leone,” “Monks,” “Pyramids,” “Sweet Life”) are done off the soap-box. In particular, “Super Rich Kids” and “Sweet Life” both tackle the concept of a privileged life, and considering Frank’s humble beginnings, at no point are the lyrics judgemental. If anything they’re compassionate: “Parents ain’t around enough.” The laid back rap from Earl Sweatshirt tells a story of a crashed Jag and drug purchasing ending with, “Don’t believe us, treat us like we can’t erupt,” leaving us with zero appetite for the silver spoon. In “Sweet Life,” he places no blame on a pampered life having no interest in seeing the world, because their life is chock full of things that are considered beautiful. As far as he’s concerned – you live and you die in it. No judgement.
Vivid imagery and complex melodies come together on the best moments in Channel Orange: “Sierra Leone,” “Pilot Jones,” “Monks,” and “Pink Matter.” The latter gifts us with a rich feature from Andre 3000: “I’m building y’all a clock, stop. What am I Hemingway?”
At the very end of Channel Orange, we’re left with audio of someone getting out of a car, leaving us with a very nuanced picture of Frank as an artist, proving he’s got the chops to write about anything. The bad news is that we’re made to believe that out of these incredible tracks, only two are blatantly personal (“Bad Religion” and “Forrest Gump”). But if we look closer, all of them are personal. Frank’s appeal is his own personal take on whatever it is he wants to write about – take the groupie love story in “Monks;” it’s gritty and witty.
In the age of DIY, we’ve seen artists come and go, never measuring up to the power of marketing conglomerates and record labels. We’ve re-learned something imperative, yet basic, from a child of Hurricane Katrina, a child of the Hollywood dream, and a child of lyrical ghostwriting who used to go by the name of Christopher “Lonny” Breaux: It’s all about the story.