Frank Ocean is 24 years old. It’s easy to forget this given that he has written for Beyoncé, sung on “Watch The Throne” and released the most important and critically acclaimed mixtape of 2011. The youthful ambition of “channel ORANGE,” however, gives him away. It’s bold, both musically and thematically, and the enthusiasm with which Ocean throws himself into each of his songs–sometimes in vain–is a pointed reminder that this long-awaited album is a debut, albeit an excellent one.
After the opening track, “Start,” which contains a smattering of the household and electronic noises that Ocean is already known for, “channel” presents a revamped “Thinkin Bout You.” Whereas Ocean’s stripped-down, Tumblr-released demo echoed the conversational sprezzatura of the lyrics, the album version, complete with multi-tracked vocals and an echoed drumbeat, sounds almost over-thought.
After the bedroom slow jam “Sierra Leone,” Ocean toys with the idea of disillusionment on “Sweet Life,” a Pharrell Williams co-write that shows just what upscale production can do. Complete with The Neptunes-style instrumentation, “Sweet Life” is smart and crisp. “Why see the world / When you’ve got the beach?” Ocean asks as he fleshes out the question of privilege, setting the stage for “Super Rich Kids,” a standout track featuring Earl Sweatshirt of Odd Future, the hip-hop collective of which Ocean is also a member. The combination of Ocean’s silky vocals and Earl’s spot-on matter-of-factness (“Too many bottles of this wine we can’t pronounce”) captures the voices of jaded Los Angeles youth.
Ocean gets ahead of himself with “Pilot Jones” and “Crack Rock,” the most overtly topical songs on the album. Tired tropes such as “My brother get popped / And don’t no one hear the sound” are unnatural coming from Ocean; his songwriting strength lies in moments, not generalities.
“Pyramids” serves as the centerpiece of the album. Clocking in at 10 minutes, “Pyramids” is an epic in three parts, showcasing Ocean’s lyrical talents as he tells the story of Cleopatra and her modern-day counterpart, beautifully juxtaposing images of opulence and poverty.
The second half of the album is much smoother: From the summery “Lost” to the sensuous “White,” Ocean packs his tracks with small yet exquisite surprises. “Monks” explores the higher end of Ocean’s vocal register, drawing inevitable Stevie Wonder comparisons, while “Pink Matter” pairs soulful contemplation with an excellent guest verse from André 3000.
Where “Crack Rock” fails, “Bad Religion” succeeds. Ocean tackles the issues of religion and self-discovery through the creation of a nuanced, sympathetic character on a wonderfully bare track. “Bad Religion” threatens to erupt into spectacle several times but holds back, exposing a rare vulnerability in the vocals.
Frank Ocean is credited on his album as a musician, vocalist and producer, but above all, Ocean emerges from “channel ORANGE” as a storyteller. His name is absent from the album cover, indicative of his approach and dedication to his craft. “Channel ORANGE” deserves to be attended to with the lyrics sheet in hand. And best of all, Frank Ocean is only 24, promising to be around for years to come.