The transition from working in coloring books, to drawing pictures on a blank piece of paper must be a *bitch to little kids. When you work in the predefined lines of a coloring book you can safely make awesome shit. You can make some very realistic flowers in a field, or get Super Troopers drug hallucination inspired and make pictures of purple elephants frolicking in green rivers. With either approach to coloring you benefit from those set lines. You have a base idea what the final outcome is going to look like. The first time your parents hand you a box of crayons and a blank sheet of paper, you have no idea what it’s going to end up looking like. It’s a small act of bravery to begin TRYING to draw. Your attempt at making an elephant can easily end up looking like an illustrated guide to a womens vajay jay. That’s a frighteningly age inappropriate reality for kids that still find Yo Gabba Gabba to be a compelling show.
The Hip Hop and R&B game, stays firmly in the world of “coloring books”. Most albums fall into very predictable subject matter and execution. There’s songs for making love, songs about falling in love, songs about falling out of love, and songs celebrating human anatomy. There’s some autotune, maybe a club joint from some Swedish pop singer. The execution varies slightly, but at the end of the day, you know what the album will sound like. Channel Orange—Frank Ocean’s debut album, throws back to the more adventurous days of R&B. Back in the days, dudes made seven minute long R&B jams about life that could double as progressive rock songs and mad people conceive babies while listening to it.
From the opening track “Start”, a sound collage of everything from an iPhone text message noise to heavy breaths to Street Fighter 2 soundtrack music, you realize you’re on some different shit. The album begins with “Thinking ‘Bout You” a delicately sung, slow burning song that expands the sentiment of childhood “do you like me” notes into an examination of newfound love. It’s the sort of track young girls want to hear on mixtapes given to them by dudes they have crushes on. But, the dudes they have crushes on don’t have the courage to rock joints like this until it’s no longer age appropriate to lead with mixtapes. Such is the tragedy of young love. While this is standard fare for an R&B album, a couple of songs later you get a suite of songs “Sweet Life,” “Super Rich Kids” and “Not Just Money” that unravel a story of privileged black kids enjoying a life of luxury. These are totally songs you could make babies to (“Sweet Life” especially feels like some old D’Angelo shit) but it’s an odd lyrical choice to focus in on the black upperclass for the middle third of your debut album, yet it fits with the young love theme of “Thinking ‘Bout You.” Odder still, is the decision to have one of these songs work off of a piano melody that sounds a lot like Elton John’s “Benny and the Jets.”
The rest of the album is similarly out there in a low key way. “Monks” features some odd metaphors about moshing monks and instrumentation that brings to mind Stevie Wonder as played by Phrenology era Roots. The combination of “Bad Religion” and “Pink Matter” is an OD level melancholy testament to unrequited love and longing, but it also sounds a lot like a Jon Brion (early Fiona Apple producer/Eternal Sunshine for the Spotless Mind composer) jam, with all that melodic melodrama preserved.
While Channel Orange has a lot of jams on it and beautiful lullaby compositions, it’s also incredibly brave and nuanced. For a first album (depending on what you consider Nostalgia Ultra it shows an assuredly distinct and mature musical voice. This is one of the first R&B albums in recent memory that plays out as a whole instead of a collection of singles. It’s clear that whether it be on Tumblr or in his music, Frank Ocean isn’t afraid to make bold and defining statements. Judging by Channel Orange, they’ll all turn out pretty well for him.