Frank Ocean’s ‘Channel Orange’ Is Not a Classic
Frank Ocean

Photo courtesy of Frank Ocean/Facebook.

Frank Ocean’s bisexual. Tyler knew. Odd Future needs approximately zero more words written about them and homophobia. The world needs approximately zero more words by straight people about how to come out. It’s not a publicity stunt when there was already publicity. Psychoanalyzing pronouns is pointless. Psychoanalyzing old lyrics is more pointless. Psychoanalyzing demos written for other people is spectacularly pointless.

There, that’s the refutation to every extra-musical argument made in recent weeks about Frank Ocean and not Channel Orange. The album was already going to be big, but context has already rendered it classic. Today, Pitchfork gave it a 9.5, astounding for what’s essentially a debut. Nor is Channel Orange’s hype restricted to Internet or critical bubbles; Billboard’s projecting more than 100K album sales, which is impressive for a record with no physical release, no current or former record heats, almost no traditional promotion and one that Ocean made it really easy to stream for free.

“Frank Ocean’s career is going to plateau, if it’s going to be praised this much on the strength of one uneven album.”

Ocean put up that stream a week early, too, just as the hype became a frenzy, and you’ve got to imagine the early release — it’s like Christmas! — amplified the attention somewhat. That hype’s inevitably come with endless overstatements of Ocean’s credentials. You can see why it’s happening — it’s a laudable attempt to quash any emerging memes about Ocean being “the gay R&B artist,” and he has enough fans among critics eager to do that work. But it’s gone past adequate, even past overcompensating, and is now ridiculous. As almost everyone who’s written about Ocean this week reminded the world, he got to work on Watch the Throne — but so did Elly Jackson, LMFAO and Mr Hudson, none of whom are being lauded for subtle genius. (Imagine if Ocean did Hudson’s chorus: “Ooh, I love you so, but why I love you, I’ll never know”; the world would’ve called it “astonishing romantic ambivalence.”) Someone at the Boston Phoenix rounded up a lot of presumably-teenagers tweeting, in relay-race format, every one of Ocean’s lyrics in an attempt to prove how much kids relate to them, which was cool and gimmicky and which every Buzzfeed employee has probably already been yelled at for not thinking up first — but you could pull that off with any pop artist with young tweeting fans. If you tried it with Born This Way when it leaked, you’d have grounds for making a grand Girls voice-of-a-generation declaration.
Or take Ocean’s letter, almost universally praised for its prose; Pitchfork’s Ryan Dombal called it “stunningly written.” But it’s wasn’t. It’s stunningly candid, yes, but not stunningly written; nothing about the writing transcends workmanlike. That’s entirely fine for a public statement — how Ocean tells his life story is his business, and criticizing the writing isn’t just missing the point entirely but inventing a couple new points just to miss them. It’s less fine when his songwriting tends toward, as critic Alex Macpherson put it, “simplistic masquerading as disarmingly direct.”
Frank Ocean

Photo courtesy of Frank Ocean/Facebook.

You can’t blame Frank Ocean, really. He’s 24. He’s presumably been told, if not by friends then by critics and fans, that his shelved Def Jam work was actually unheralded genius. But though he’s not new as a musician or songwriter, he’s still new as an established solo artist, and Channel Orange is exactly what a new 24-year-old’s solo artist’s work tends to be: promising, but uneven. The album sounds great, whether it’s synthesized quietstorms like “Pink Matter” with guitars chopped and distorted enough to meet Dave Longstreth’s approval, tracks like “Super Rich Kids” with stalking pianos and steely poise, or jazzier tracks so opulently crisp you can practically hear the dimensions of the recording studio. Its guests are few and well-chosen — Andre 3000, professional as always, and Earl Sweatshirt, who brings all his much-hailed technical skill but none of his complicating Odd Futurisms. The structure is smart. Before lush ballad “Thinking About You” is intro “Start,” made of enough outtakes and iSFX to give traditionalists fits and scare them off before they reach any prog or pronouns that’d upset them. (If you’re streaming it on Ocean’s site, you literally do have to get past it; you can’t skip.) Channel Orange is strewn with these interludes, and they’re interesting enough, but they’re also overly clever and just begging to be overpraised and over-thinkpieced for what’s essentially a guy messing around with his MacBook.

That’s going to happen with everything here. Ocean’s voice, uneven as well, hasn’t improved much. For every stunning moment, like his buoyant falsetto on “Thinking About You” or conversational sarcasm afterward, there’s two more uninspired stretches — like the rest of “Thinking About You,” where every other line sounds like the guide vocals for Bridget Kelly that they were. The lyrics are usually fine and often better than fine, but you can just see how people are going to make too much out of, say, Ocean’s use of California slang he’s immersed in or the songwriting techniques he’s studied. Ocean writes three sorts of songs. There are terminally cool chill-outs like “Sweet Life,” which do their jobs. There are the ballads, but for every touching moment is one as affectless as a Thought Catalog article. Then there are his ambitious ones, the ones that have already gotten this album called genius. They often fall flat. The “taxi driver… can we outrun the demons?” framing device on “Bad Religion” was genuinely impressive the first time Ocean tried it, on “Swim Good.” “Forrest Gump”’s premise renders it fan fiction, and anyone compared so often to Gump in a relationship would have grounds for dumping. There is “Pyramids,” 10 minutes long and gorgeous-sounding, but it tells the same story about prostitution that musicians and writers have told for years, and that story about prostitution almost involves time travel. (Time-traveling Egyptian lovers, by the way? Disney did it.) But what seemed epic or impressive as a lead single recedes into the background here. The pyramids at Giza, after all, stood out because they were plopped down in the middle of the desert.The pyramids of Giza also weren’t built in a day. If the pharaoh commissioning them had called them wonders of the world in the beginning, they’d just be unfinished plateaus of stone. Frank Ocean’s career is going to plateau, too, if it’s going to be praised this much on the strength of one uneven album. If we must revisit Frank’s old tracks for clues, the most instructive one is probably “Best Seller,” in which Ocean defends his love and/or art from the greedy critics and publishers who will presumably swoop in, “Trying to make it a best-seller.” “It’s precious, it’s private/ And it sure ain’t for profit,” Ocean sings, and if anything in his discography is going to be called prescient, it’s that. Ocean’s self-expression is undeniably precious. It’s also private. It sure ain’t for profit. It’s probably going to make Channel Orange a best-seller, which is fine and deserved. What it shouldn’t do is make it a premature classic. Ocean’s statement was revelatory, but his revelatory album is still in his future.

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