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SPIN Essentials

Frank Ocean, ‘channel ORANGE’ (Def Jam)

Frank Ocean
SPIN Rating: 9 of 10
Release Date: July 17, 2012
Label: Def Jam

If you are one of the thousands of Americans wondering why the R&B singer Frank Ocean is becoming “famous,” here’s a partial answer: Frank Ocean is a story we want to tell ourselves. When he migrated from New Orleans to Los Angeles shortly after Hurricane Katrina, he became a story about triumphing over circumstances. Once in L.A., he was signed to Def Jam as a solo artist under his birth name, Chris Breaux. After years of feeling stifled and ignored, he released a free album called Nostalgia, Ultra under the name Frank Ocean, as a member of Odd Future. Suddenly, Def Jam was very curious to find out who this Frank Ocean person was. This made him a story about artistic independence beating out a business too slow and dumb to recognize talent that it had already paid for.

Most recently, Ocean wrote on his Tumblr blog that his first love was a man — a brave, beautiful gesture that quickly turned into an opportunity for media outlets to congratulate him on his bravery and beauty. This made Frank Ocean a story about personal freedom. E! Online, which previously had not covered his music in any substantial way, included him in their weekly wrap-up under this headline: “Freddy Ocean revealed a big secret.” Freddy, Frank, Chris — some singer out there was gay, and nobody wanted to miss an opportunity to be publicly supportive of him.

But there’s text and there’s context, and none of Frank Ocean’s biography would matter unless his music was any good. And it is — remarkably so. The stories he tells — which, in turn, are part of his story — are clever, witty, and very, very sad. The people in them often start out feeling confused and emotionally impotent, and end up feeling more or less the same. Imagine Jimmy Stewart coming to the end of It’s A Wonderful Life, but instead of having a soul-trembling realization about the gift of existence, he just stood there, shaking his head and wiping his nose. Beauty and hope visit the characters of the songs on channel ORANGE through the side door in ways that feel almost accidental.

In that sense, Frank Ocean is a story about alienation, about people not realizing the power of the moment until it’s over. You’ve heard that story before and it may have bored you. That’s understandable: Without careful handling, alienation turns into angst, and angst is never interesting once the initial rush of it burns off. But angst is never an issue with Frank Ocean. At 24, he already has the warm-hearted, resolute perspective of someone who has experienced the pain that life has to offer and knows, gloriously, that it goes on regardless. See channel ORANGE‘s “Pilot Jones,” a love song (about a drug dealer) whose beginning, middle, and end is expressed in a single, melancholy couplet: “I know what I was on, I had a Pilot Jones / She took me high, then she took me home.” If Ocean writes epiphanies, it’s in lines like “I know what I was on”: in a world defined by smothered understanding and missed opportunities, knowing anything constitutes a victory.

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channel ORANGE feels like one long, moonlit, air-conditioned ride. Songs ease from one to the next, flowing together with ambient pieces of distant movie dialogue and the sound of electronics turning on and off. Only twice in an hour does the tempo ever get above a crawl. The tracks themselves have a loose, emptied-out glamour to them, like a spotlight turned to a bar floor while the patrons filter toward the door. As a singer, Ocean performs like he has all the time in the world and no idea what to do with it. Some might hear this as numbness, but on channel ORANGE, it comes across as exceptional wisdom and repose: He’s seen enough hot stoves to recognize when they’re cool enough to touch again. It takes more than drugs to move this slowly — it takes patience and understanding.

“You don’t know how little you matter until you’re all alone in the middle of Arkansas with a little rock left in that glass dick,” he sings on “Crack Rock.” The kibble in the pipe, the way he belittles the pipe as a “glass dick,” the invocation of Arkansas, a state that’s usually the butt of bad jokes: These are the details that not only make Ocean’s perspective unique, but enable him to give affecting specificity to a sentiment like, “We’re all alone in the world.” The narrator of “Bad Religion” confesses his pain to a cabbie running the meter — probably the album’s most unfettered burst of passion. “Allahu akbar,” the cabbie tells him: “God is greatest.” Ocean, who never lets pride or nostalgia get in the way, interprets the words as a curse. Volatile emotion lingers just over his head, ungraspable.

But if Frank Ocean and channel ORANGE tell a story about alienation, they’re also making an argument for the ways in which alienation is funny, pathetic and tender. At its best, Ocean’s humor is used as a veil for frustration and regret. “My TV ain’t HD, that’s too real,” the narrator of “Sweet Life” complains, then returns to his swimming-pool floatie. If the song wasn’t so pretty — Ocean’s velvety voice, soft jazzy accompaniment — you might even feel bad for him.

Ocean is often distant, zoomed-out, and removed from the action of the stories he tells, but it’s a distance achieved through hard-earned experience and an almost bottomless sense of compassion. Distance, it turns out, is a way of coming closer. Really, Frank Ocean doesn’t directly address pain on channel ORANGE. He writes and sings about wet t-shirt contests and strip clubs, about rich and poor people fumbling through their lives. Happiness, in these songs, is an equal-opportunity feeling — Ocean writes about that, too. He drifts in and out of these scenes, too smart to be truly hopeful, too hopeful to be depressed. He watches as people fall down, get up, laugh, and move resiliently into the dark: a story we all need to hear.