Channel Orange

Frank Ocean

Def Jam, 2012

REVIEW BY: Ken DiTomaso


Frank Ocean may be a member of LA’s often crass Odd Future collective, but his songwriting is far more mature than that of his cohorts. He plays a smooth style of R&B, more akin to the likes of Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye than say Prince or James Brown. His first release, 2011’s Nostalgia Ultra, was a strained effort that showed promise but featured too many outright awful ideas to resonate with me. Channel Orange, however, is a big step up and makes me optimistic for Ocean’s future.

“Bad Religion” is the album’s major highlight. Its passionate lyrics about unrequited love, excellent melody, and truly passionate delivery make for Ocean’s best song yet. Definite hit potential there. Other highlights include the soulful horn-laden “Thinkin’ Bout You,” the chilling drug tale “Crack Rock,” and the groovy “Super Rich Kids,” which repurposes the beat from Elton John’s “Bennie And The Jets” to great effect.

“Pyramids” is the big centerpiece here, taking up a fifth of the album’s runtime. While it makes use of a handful of decent ideas to tell its story and carry the track though its different sections, the song lacks the momentum it needs to maintain my attention throughout its 10 minutes. It could have been edited down significantly without losing anything, but it’s still nice to see Ocean trying to stretch out and break conventions like this.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

There is a welcome diversity of approaches here. No two songs really sound alike, but not enough is done to make each stand out melodically. Tunes such as “Sierra Leone,” “Lost,” “Pink Matter,” and “Monks” are just dead in the water. “Pink Matter” thankfully is saved by a guest appearance from Outkast’s Andre 3000, who seems to have made it his mission to show up every single artist who will let him guest on their tracks. His verse makes for one of the best moments on the album but in the end it mainly serves to remind me how I’d rather be listening to an Outkast album instead. Ocean’s Odd Future buddies Earl Sweatshirt and Tyler The Creator also make guest appearances, the former with his second commercially released verse on “Super Rich Kids,” and the latter on bonus track “Golden Girl.” Earl’s delivery is a little lackluster but his wordplay is as fun as ever and it fits the song well. Tyler’s verse, however, just sounds out of place on a song that wasn’t that great to begin with, so it was probably a smart choice relegating it to bonus track status.

The problem with this album is pretty simple. Ocean simply can’t compete with his idols. His voice is good, sure, but it doesn’t come close to being as expressive as some of the singers he’s imitating. But he comes close in spots, particularly on “Bad Religion.” I do feel he has the potential to be a truly great singer, but he hasn’t quite reached that level yet.

Channel Orange shows an artist growing into his own skin. This is a big leap above Nostalgia Ultra and if Frank Ocean can continue to improve at the same rate, he could become an R&B force to be reckoned with. Most artists in this genre these days seem to just sing vapid sex and party songs, so it’s refreshing to listen to an R&B artist with as much substance to his music as Ocean. However it’s apparent that he still has a ways to go if he truly wants to compete with his influences. Channel Orange is a solid record but it doesn’t come close to touching any of the genre’s past classics. Does Ocean have it in him or is this the best he can offer? Only time will tell.

Rating: B-

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© 2012 Ken DiTomaso and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Def Jam, and is used for informational purposes only.