First of all, sorry for the uber-pretentious title. I’m still kind of in college essay mode and that’s a bit hard to escape. That said, I wanted to talk about one of the best records of the year for this week’s column and I decided the best way to approach the subject is to sort of do a freeform discussion.
Frank Ocean is an RnB talent that has gotten buzz for his involvement with Odd Future as well as his recent revelation of his own homosexuality. Ocean can croon as well as anyone in the genre, but weave a dense tale of desire in the same sentence. His coming out was in a well-parsed Tumblr post that narrowly seems like LiveJournal territory, but with a longing to it. Despite being in a hip-hop community famous for gay slurs and for slagging artists that aren’t “hard” (see any criticism of Drake not involving his bland rapping style), Ocean has become interesting because he’s just damn good.
The opening of Ocean’s debut album Channel Orange has a familiar ring to it.
If you listen carefully, you’ll hear an iPhone ding. If you listen further, you’ll hear the opening jingle to the Playstation 1 followed by the fighter select music for (probably) Street Fighter Alpha 2. These noises are all nostalgic, all decadent, and begin a narrative about living in your early 20s and the advantages and disadvantages of how one encounters their environment and connection of love.
“Sweet Life” and “Super Rich Kids” imagines Ladera Heights as the type of story mine that has always been in pulpy early and late 20th century fiction. In the same way The Great Gatsby is more or less about decadent white people, Ocean imagines a world in a bubble. (A lot of critics also liken these two songs to Bret Easton Ellis’ novel Less Than Zero.) “Why see the world, when you’ve got the beach?” he asks on “Sweet Life.” Ocean brings up a theme that isn’t exactly new, but certainly nicely surprising in a soulful RnB release. His protagonists are loaded, need nothing, and yet are probably as lonely as can be. The Playstation jingle probably represents the way most people tend to play video games: by themselves and sucked into a world.
Other protagonists in Ocean’s stories are drug users, co-dependent lovers, strippers, and people that know their reality is as much a fiction as the narrator telling their stories. The Wikipedia page for Channel Orange does a really solid job of expanding on anything I can write here, so I’ll talk about why the music is so damn good.
Ocean achieves something with this narration that hasn’t been present in so called “neo soul” since D’Angelo’s Voodoo album. Ocean croons like the sexy stars of the past, but also understands how to create a theme. It seems like it would be the exact opposite of appealing to create a sexy album about loneliness. Yet Ocean’s work is transcendent entirely because of how he treats the genre in itself. Ocean’s songs are love songs, but about the artifice of love. His narrative seems like Kid Cudi’s album Man on the Moon, but he allows himself to play observer as much as he is the protagonist. Ocean uses the album as a logical expansion to his mixtape Nostalgia. Ultra and it shows.