Bah, Humbug - Frank Ocean's channel.ORANGE Is Not The Album Of The YearBy Colin Small
When Frank Ocean publicly admitted that he had had a romantic relationship with another man, it was extremely heartening. If it didn't make you feel warm and gooey inside, you're either more callous pit of unemotion or a big ol' homophobe. Coming from Odd Future, a crew that regularly and gladly uses the word “faggot,” Frank and the rest of OF's comfort with his sexual exploration was maybe just a little bit more proof that acceptance and love can exist much more strongly outside of language than they can within it. Unfortunately, striding social movements and the creation of durable art in the music industry don't always go hand in hand. Frank's “coming out” served to make the album seem like a calm within the media storm it had created, a serene mountain of confidence in the midst of a critical landscape filled with people who were almost literally foaming at the mouth to praise it. Now, five months into the album's wake, we shouldn't let its heartwarming backstory divert us from the fact that the album is actually kind of a fucking mess.
I write this with the full understanding that other people's experiences are not negated by my crotchety opinions. 10,000 smiling music writers and 1,000,000 sappy Facebook posts can't be wrong, right? Noisey's own Drew Millard wrote an alarmingly elegant review that gave it an A+. Instead, look at this as a second opinion, a dose of too-cool-for-school contrarian backlash:
channel.ORANGE isn't a mess because Frank Ocean is a bad musician or a bad songwriter or even a bad singer. It's a mess because Frank was overly ambitious from just about every angle. Many of the album's tracks sound like an attempt to prove some kind of savant-genius through the presentation of relatively unrefined and unrelated ideas, as if everything that jumped out of his brain seemed so great that there was no need for either editing or elaboration. For starters, "Thinking About You," the song that seems to have made my entire Twitter timeline drown in a pool of their own tears, is just three minutes of Frank milking the shit out a falsetto chorus that never ends. Is this all we need these days to be satisfied? Nobody seems to mind that the song's verses are composed of a bunch of lame jokes (A beach house in Idaho? LOL!), sung in an intentionally complicated cadence that never quite comes together. The verses and the chorus may be narratively related, but as far as sound is concerned, they couldn’t be less compatible. “Pilot Jones,” “Fertilizer,” “Sierra Leone,” and even the particularly poignant “Pink Matter” follow in its noodly-doodly footsteps.
"Pyramids," the album's longest and most ambitious track, is the most unedited of all. The song is supposed to be some kind of three-act epic but what it sounds like is a pile of constantly shifting melodic lines that never pay attention to one another. The first act cuts itself off before we can stay with its abrasive and purposefully obtuse tune long enough to make it remotely enjoyable, the next draws on into an infuriatingly anticlimactic rinky-dink synth ditty, and the third has John Mayer playing what is essentially a youtube parody video with a lot of hazy reverb smeared on top. Any time that a piece of the song seems like it might be going somewhere interesting, Ocean abruptly moves on to something more boring and repetitive. All the while he's smashing my skull in with a pyramid-shaped sledge-hammer of obnoxiously-hollow symbolism.
Maybe the most annoying thing about all of this cluttered and underdeveloped songwriting is that basically every legend of male R&B is a master of making small, repeated motifs seem bottomless: Al Green, Ginuwine, D'Angelo, motherfucking Prince for god's sake. Marvin Gaye was so good at developing simple ideas into long songs that he wrote almost an entire album without a single note of melody and somehow manages to hold your attention the whole time. Frank isn't obligated to follow in these footsteps, but he doesn't offer much of an alternate path, merely half-assing old forms and passing them off as new and different.
As a concept album, channel.ORANGE is just as ambitious as it is in its songwriting and falls just as short in execution. Its closest structural analog is probably Pink Floyd's famous prog-rock eulogy Wish You Were Here. The album is languid and personal, leading from one powerfully-developed theme into another through the conceit of changing radio stations, much like channel.ORANGE. Each song is iterated to its creative limit and then faded into radio static. Yeah, it's some overwrought, pretentious bullshit (I mean, Prog Rock etc.) but in the end it helps the listener understand the album while still allowing for powerful standalone tracks. Frank takes this idea and chops it to pieces, changing the radio to a television and five songs into seventeen, effectively taking a mildly interesting conceit and making it annoying, overwhelming and ultimately unnecessary. Where on WYWH the channel-like song changes are sweet relief after fourteen minutes of ominous noodling, on CO it's a frustrating concept that gets in the way of legitimately enjoyable lines of creativity. Where Floyd's album is made to look more concise and symmetrical by its concept, Frank's looks slapdash and bloated, an unnecessary attempt at grandeur that barely applies to the album's central themes.
But the album is called channel.ORANGE after all, so maybe it's all about the colors? While the whole orange thing is supposed to hint at a synesthesia-like reaction to his first experience of love, the theme remains almost completely unexplored. "Pink Matter" mentions grey, pink, purple, and blue, while “Forrest Gump” mentions forest green and forest blue, both suggesting that he is connecting other colors to other relationships. What neither mentions, however, is the significance of these colors outside of the color-to-experience pairing that we already understand. Do the colors have any meaning of their own? What does, for example, the color orange say about this person that he was in love with? Nothing, it turns out. Taylor Swift used the same idea on her recent album Red, but fortunately she had the intellectual modesty to keep it to one song, exactly the amount of space that is needed for the conceptual club-foot that it is.
Speaking of annoying symbolism, another song that made people regress into wailing infants country-wide is "Bad Religion," possibly the album's most lyrically overextended track. Does anybody know what the fuck he's talking about? More importantly, does anyone need to? Because that clunky metaphor doesn't lend any further significance to an already very relatable concept, one that literally everyone over the age of five has experienced: unrequited love. It is cult-like in its painful, unwavering devotion, but does Frank's lover live on a yacht in international waters? Is he going to ask Frank to drink poisoned Flavor-Aid? Frankly, its a clumsily worded and unnecessary concept that he uses to make his situation seem more dramatic and unique than it actually is. The best part of this song may by when he talks about steak knifes, but only because its a rare turn of spontaneous flair that breaks the weird, corny tension that he's trying so hard to build.
All of this, as if only to infuriate me more, is slathered in an in-joke smugness that for some reason people are falling over themselves to praise, because exactly what we need in the music industry these days is more ego. Frank, let me ask you a question. How are we supposed to relate to your personal pain when your album's high-minded grandiosity and constantly raised eyebrow make it obvious that you think you're both smarter and more clever than us? I certainly can't. Without the 'tude, the album would have been an enjoyable hour of innovative takes on classic R&B with more than a few moments of greatness, but because Frank sounds like he was over it before he even finished recording, it became sixty minutes of pretty insufferable pretension sprinkled with just enough five-second moments of relatable emotion to make people think it was genius. In a genre that thrives on relatable and universal feelings, Frank Ocean has somehow made an album that has surprisingly little of either. I may have given it to my Mom for Christmas this year (she asked for it), but channel.ORANGE is certainly not at the top of my list.
Colin Small hates everything (not really) and is on Twitter (really) - @ColinSSmall
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