Frank Ocean’s music touches such a raw nerve because it’s the rare album that fully appeals on a here-and-now pop level while referencing classic pop — in this case, pop and soul maestros like Stevie Wonder
and Elton John
— and offering something else entirely. This something else is that human, overexposed, heart-and-mind-on-sleeve content that firmly roots Channel Orange
in the social network era. I was late to the game; the first time I heard “Thinkin Bout You” was the day before Ocean very publicly came out
of the closet. That happenstance was strange for me — the thing that first struck me about the song, aside from its obvious craft, the kind of instantly memorable hit that combines a suave, easy to follow melody and arrangement with dagger-in-the-heart lyrics, was an indescribable “third” quality beyond music and lyrics that I usually find with my favorite music, whether it’s The Smashing Pumpkins
, The Beatles
or, perhaps more relatedly, morose ’90s/'00s R&B hits like PM Dawn
’s “Die Without You,” Fabolous & Tamia’s “So Into You,” Lauryn Hill
’s “Ex Factor”
and so on. It’s that sort of feeling that hits you immediately and reminds you of all the stupid unrequited crushes, moments of indirection, and fleeting feelings of serenity in youth. That Ocean possibly wrote the song about his own unrequited same-sex love made sense to me, since that’s pretty much what the song reminded me of. But beyond any personal affiliation with the song, the ability to communicate such universal but difficult to pin down feelings so instantly is quite rare, and so thus should be treasured in the way rave reviews have been pouring in for Channel Orange.
Indeed, I think “Thinkin Bout You” is the best song anyone will release this year, and Channel Orange
likely will be the album of the year. Beyond that opening instant classic, Channel Orange
brims with power. Take the lush Marvin Gaye
-meets-How to Dress Well
depiction of new parenthood in “Sierra Leone,” its lyrics offering a welcome balance of vagueness and detail devoid of judgment, communicating feelings of joy and trepidation. He celebrates and also exposes the lives of privileged black youth in a seemingly realistic way, beyond the bling-style fantasies of much of hip-hop, in songs like “Sweet Life” and the brilliant “Super Rich Kids,” which sounds like a hip-hop “Benny and the Jets” playing over an episode of the similarly revelatory reality show “Baldwin Hills.” He creates an sprawling, Kanye-style centerpiece with “Pyramids,” an epic track buoyed by raunchy synth riffs that turn glittering in the song’s sweetly disintegrating second half. And he continues to explore his evolving sexuality on a trio of closing ballads, in which he sounds as comfortable and natural singing about love between men, and between men and women. Though that doesn’t at all overshadow the rest of the album, which has more merits in spades to stand on its own, it can’t be ignored, either, as a huge moment for hip-hop — for all music — as a knocking down of barriers in music, sexuality and male image through some of the most dazzling, yet thoughtful pop music being made today.