Our designer/visionary/main man Jarren Simmons (@XTRA__) wrote a splendid review on Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange over on his blog recently, and I wanted to share it over here. Enjoy…
In a world seemingly dominated by the zap of electronic music, Frank Ocean’sChannel Orange is a breath of fresh air for the over-synthesized ear. I usually don’t believe in tethering albums to one genre, but Channel Orange is more of a funk/soul album than anything. If it’s an R&B album it’s more akin to a Motown release than a modern one, with jazzy flourishes and roaming syncopation from beginning to end.
The first thing that struck me was the overwhelmingly acoustic feel of the project. With the exceptions of Pyramids and Pilot Jones, the construction of the sound centers around keys and grooving baselines that sound like they could be straight from a Bernie Worrell set (“Monks” is a good example of this). Even “Thinking Bout You”–with a very synthesized mixdown in its initial release–has been modified with sweeping strings that transform the song’s landscape into something more orchestral than electronic. The last three songs all start with buzzing organ chords; Marvin meets the Baptist Church. In an era where sound can be tailored to the last detail it’s interesting to see someone utilize an electric keyboard in its most archaic form.
The soul/funk feel of the album is only enhanced by Ocean’s vocal approach, which can certainly be categorized as organic in delivery and timbre compared to many of his contemporaries. His verses often sound like spoken word, almost freestyle–another nod to his jazz and blues predecessors–with lines and melodies floating atop the instruments at their own pace (ie “Sierra Leone”). This gives them an almost unpredictable quality, compared to someone like The Weeknd, where melodies are more rhythmic and predictable (gelling well with his hyper-synthetic sound and the crescendo of trip-hop/dubstep-inspired swells and drops).
Another Motown-esque feature of Channel Orange are its drawn-out instrumental jams and lead-ins. Tracks like Pyramids and Pink Matter ride out on dripping guitar solos thick with wah-wah and distortion, while Sweet Life and Forrest Gump cruise on relaxed acoustics (think the last 1:30 of Mercy Mercy Me). Hell, “Pyramids” has enough instrumentals for 3 songs and “White” is a minute long jam sans words, highlighted by John Mayer crushing the dream guitar. The difference between these instrumental sections and those on, say, “The Knowing” by The Weeknd, lies in the editing process. Almost every track on Channel Orange sounds like it could be a live take; there are split vocals and drum machines no doubt, but the sound envelopes and filtering is minimal. I imagine Ocean flying through “Forrest Gump” in the studio in one take, with the band performing directly beside him.
My favorite track on the album is probably “Crack Rock” (“Pyramids” is a close second). A lot of what Ocean is striving for is accomplished well in Crack Rock; it seems to be the best blend of Channel Orange’s numerous motifs. Ignited by chill keys and jazzy organs, this song has a throwback feel from the beginning. Not only does the content deliver a strong message straight at the heart of a social issue that’s plagued communities for generations, but the track is actually constructed from snippets of the past (you may recognize the refined drum sample from Hendrix’s “Foxy Lady”…Crack Rock, get it?). Ocean’s verses start off with almost dead pan delivery, offset by the graphic nature of the content–smoking crack–and reeks of Sly and the Family Stone more than your 2010+ R&B artists like Trey Songz or The Dream. The combo of thick vocal harmonies on the choruses, gliding organs and a socially-conscious message gives the song a very spiritual overtone. This archetype of spiritual cleansing through music is echoed throughout Channel Orange; via the issues of love (“Bad Religion”), wealth (“Super Rich Kids”), or in the case of “Crack Rock”, drug addiction.
All in all, the more I listen to Channel Orange the more I find myself appreciating it. Some songs work better than others for me, but I can’t stress enough how refreshing the emergence of a soul sound can be. To create a 17 track album with 13 solid songs of variable pace and message is difficult enough. Now do that with no DJ tramp stamps, only 2 vocal features, and no beats by Dre (or Timbo, or any other high profile producer for that matter). Ocean references elements from soul, funk, jazz, blues/rock, and almost every song is in the first person. This makes for a highly personal, highly accessible sound that covers a wide audience, and in my opinion, is very successful in doing so. Frank Ocean’s lo-fi sonic construction coupled with uninhibited edgy vocals results in an album that can be slapped at almost any function, and may ultimately be a classic insight into his character. It also sounds like it’d be dope live. Just sayin.
Make sure to follow Jarren on Twitter. He’s dope.