http://assets-s3.rollingstone.com/assets/images/album_review/34326d320975be6f99ce70a6a19290f871383953.jpeg Channel Orange

Frank Ocean

Channel Orange

Island Def Jam
Rolling Stone: star rating
Community: star rating
5 4 0
July 13, 2012

The question isn't who Frank Ocean loves. It's how he loves: ardently, recklessly, yet knowingly, with a young man's headlong passion and a mordant wisdom beyond his years. Ocean made headlines when he revealed on his Tumblr that his first love had been a man; his laments for that doomed romance are all over Channel Orange, his first official album. In "Bad Religion," the LP's shuddering centerpiece, Ocean sings: "This unrequited love/To me it's nothing but/A one-man cult/And cyanide in my styrofoam cup/I could never make him love me." There are echoes of soul forbears in Ocean's music – Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Sly Stone, Prince – but his feel for romantic tragedy, unfurling in slow-boiling ballads, links him to an older tradition. He is a torch singer.  

He's also his own man, a distinctive voice with no real analogue in R&B, or anywhere else in today's pop. Like his rapper comrades in the Odd Future collective, Ocean writes with a precise sense of place: His tales are laid in decadent, sun-dazzled L.A., a landscape teeming with privileged slackers ("Super rich kids with nothing but loose ends/Super rich kids with nothing but fake friends"), unemployed guys mooching off their stripper girlfriends ("Pyramids"), lovelorn sadsacks who pour out their hearts to Muslim cab drivers ("Bad Religion"). He's a subtle storyteller, with a social consciousness that surfaces in heartbreaking details: the cash-strapped father in "Sierra Leone" who sings his infant daughter to sleep while thinking, "Baby girl, if you knew what I know," the addict in "Crack Rock" whose family has "stopped inviting you to things/Won't let you hold their infant." The music touches on Seventies funk, Eighties electro, and moody, downtempo hip-hop; there are chord changes straight out of Wonder's Innervisions, airy vamps that nod to Gaye's Here, My Dear, snarling guitars that recall Prince's Purple Rain. In "Pink Matter" (which features a guest verse by Andre 3000), Ocean fuses these sounds into a gorgeous, bluesy lament that takes in sex, betrayal, Japanese manga cartoons, extraterrestrials, and philosophical conundrums. "What do you think my brain is made for?" Ocean sings. "Is it just a container for the mind?/This great gray matter." 

Slackness and self-indulgence seep in. Sometimes, Ocean is less a songwriter than a purveyor of formless grooves; his lyrics, which at their best whiplash from the mundane to the metaphysical, dissolve occasionally into New Agey goop. ("Feet covered in cut flowers/They mosh for enlightenment/Clean chakra good karma.") Like his "progressive R&B" fellow traveler The Weeknd, Ocean has some hippie in him, and Channel Orange may be best absorbed with an ice blue bong close at hand. 

But when Ocean reins himself in, tucking his words and melodies into tighter verse-chorus structures, the songs have startling force. "You know you were my first time, a new feel/It won't ever get old, not in my soul … Do you think about me still? ... 'Cause I been thinkin' 'bout forever." Ocean sings those lines in the woozy "Thinkin Bout You," his falsetto rippling over murmuring electronic percussion. It's a bisexual black bohemian New Orleanian-turned-Angeleno's avant-R&B torch ballad. And, of course, it's just a love song – an anthem for anyone, anywhere, who's found love, and lost it.  

Frank Ocean Opens Up About His Sexuality

Album Review Main Next


Community Guidelines »
loading comments

loading comments...


Sort by:
    Read More
    Around the Web
    Powered By ZergNet
    Daily Newsletter

    Get the latest RS news in your inbox.

    Sign up to receive the Rolling Stone newsletter and special offers from RS and its
    marketing partners.


    We may use your e-mail address to send you the newsletter and offers that may interest you, on behalf of Rolling Stone and its partners. For more information please read our Privacy Policy.

    Song Stories

    “San Francisco Mabel Joy”

    Mickey Newbury | 1969

    A country-folk song of epic proportions, "San Francisco Mabel Joy" tells the tale of a poor Georgia farmboy who wound up in prison after a move to the Bay Area found love turning into tragedy. First released by Mickey Newbury in 1969, it might be more familiar through covers by Waylon Jennings, Joan Baez and Kenny Rogers. "It was a five-minute song written in a two-minute world," Newbury said. "I was told it would never be cut by any artist ... I was told you could not use the term 'redneck' in a song and get it recorded."

    More Song Stories entries »