“PEACE UP, A-TOWN!” – Everyone knows what comes next: jarring beats that sound like lightsabers ping-ponging their way across a checkers board. But those four syllables were a musical call for duty it seems. It was as if the pop world stood up, took out a pen and wrote itself a note: the future was going to be a treadmill of unabated urban ditties featuring repetitive choruses and 35-second guest appearances from global rap stars with a yo-yo long list of hit singles and guest vocals. It was a two-fingered goodbye to the likes of Destiny’s Child, and a ‘follow me’ gesture to Chris Brown, Rihanna and Co.
But a few weeks ago, Frank Ocean leaked his single, “Pyramids,” a nine-minute epic that coalesces the narratives of the Egyptian Pharaoh, Cleopatra, and Cleopatra the stripper, who works at a bar, called The Pyramid. The track confidently works its way through fast-paced club beats and a slowed down warbling of, “Working at The Pyramid tonight,” ending with a crooning electric guitar that underpins the song with equal doses of angst inflected with despair.
Unlike a lot of commercial pop records, Ocean’s new album, Channel ORANGE, is a carefully devised piece of work that comes without any padding or Polyfill pop songs. It oozes confidence throughout without becoming cocky, and assimilates a range of style without ever copying or sounding tedious.
Opening track “Start” doesn’t begin with a bang but rather a series of everyday noises: the TV, an iPod, some videogame beeps. Silence and noise blend together to culminate with the orchestral strings that herald the second single on the album, “Thinkin Bout You”. And Ocean’s falsetto croon of, “Do you not think so far ahead, because I’ve been thinking about forever,” resonates a subtle yet itching type of romance, which supersedes the everyday pop-hyperbole of love-lost.
“Thinkin Bout You” is followed with a witty minute-long interlude, “Fertilizer”, which absorbs the TV jingle-rhetoric before blazing headlong into the album’s best tracks, including “Sierra Leone, “Crack Rocks” and my personal favourites, “Pilot Jones”, “Forrest Gump” and “Super Rich Kids,” which features Earl Sweatshirt of rap co-op, Odd Future.
In songs such as “Forrest Gump” and particularly “Bad Religion,” the album’s overwhelming sense of self-awareness can be felt. “Forrest Gump” features soulful coos of “Running on my mind, Forrest, my mind” – Ocean referencing the film and the Deep South through a coalition of music and lyrics. “Bad Religion” on the other hand grasps hold of a traditional gospel sound but rather than confessing in a church or to the preacher, Ocean reveals his insecurities to a Muslim taxi driver, describing “the truth of my disguise” and the problems that “being in love with one who never loves you” can bring.
Without a doubt, Channel ORANGE is probably the most intricate and engaging album I’ve heard this year. With subtle nods towards Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Prince and even a sprinkling of Pink Floyd-like guitars in “Pyramids,” it is, at its core, a love story without the happy end. And just the way Channel ORANGE began, it ebbs away with the sound of a car engine, footsteps the jingling of keys and the close of the door.