Frank Ocean: The Only Band That Matters
Frank Ocean. Even his name sounds like it was dreamed up, because it was. Ocean is 2012's Clash, its Radiohead, its -- if you insist -- Animal Collective. From his no-name-on-the-cover mystique to the 10-minute opus, pre-career record company troubles and a grassroots indie following, he's an alternative rock star through and through. That's without even mentioning his associates in Odd Future, currently monopolizing rap at least as much as Rick Ross, or his hubris/desire to rewrite Coldplay, MGMT and the Eagles, while interpolating Radiohead -- all "rock" greats. There have always been R&B weirdos, but they've been relegated to the sidelines, or they're already mainstream-identified (Usher might've worked with Diplo but no one's expecting a Kid A from him) or doomed to cultdom within their genre (D'Angelo, Cody ChesnuTT, Raphael Saadiq). But Ocean -- who plays a sold-out show at the Regency Ballroom tonight, July 16 -- is the first purveyor of R&B album-making since Prince (if he even counts) to have an audience of all stripes ready to treat him like a legend.
For a guy with an elephantine backstory to live up to, the former Lonnie Breaux wastes no second stretching out on Channel Orange, which will either be the No. 2 or even No. 1 album in the country by the time you read this. A blind playlist check won't exactly confirm this -- lots of intros and skits, goofy titles ("Forrest Gump"? "White" featuring John Mayer?) and big fat "Pyramids" in the middle as the literal 10-minute centerpiece. Except "Pyramids" is the "single," the first thing anyone heard from the record, the first brilliant move in a marketing scheme that deserves to win awards: whetting people's appetite with the most indulgent track. But that was nothing compared to the avalanche that followed.
First there was the iconic Tumblr post where the 24-year-old singer professed that his first love was a man, setting Twitter ablaze. That was followed by a surprise week-early iTunes release the very night Ocean was to perform on Jimmy Fallon. That performance victoriously capped Frank Ocean's slow-building but suddenly immediate hold on music fans everywhere. It was his first-ever TV performance and the Roots and an orchestra backing made him look like a seasoned pro. The media has yet to let go after this consecutive gift-showering, and for once with good fucking reason.
The reason all this is worth noting is because these events frame Channel Orange in a light that's almost laughable compared to the content, a musically expansive but plenty traditional R&B album, certainly a "safer" record than last year's crowning "mixtape" debut Nostalgia, ULTRA. Lyrically, it's unlike any R&B you've ever heard, from the newly contextualized mentions of a "boy" to the nugget "Fertilizer" recalling the "commercials" on The Who Sell Out to the unloading history of "Crack Rock" folding into the strip joint of "Pyramids." Its details (like the line, "likes to fuck boys in bands," which quickly keys up "Monks"; the dizzying metaphor about balancing steak knives on his head in "Bad Religion") turn jarringly meta, like the opening line of "Sweet Life": "The best song wasn't the single." Again, the music's no tUnE-yArDs; stuff like this gets released all the time, even if it's less smart or talented. It's not like indie rock fans all go discovering R&B between their beloved bands' release schedules. That would require a new cross-genre icon to put a spotlight on already-existing music that never interested them before.
And Ocean is that once-maybe-twice-a-generation icon, lifting a whole genre up by the bootstraps. Channel Orange received a 9.5 from Pitchfork upon release. The last album to garner that rating (Bon Iver, Bon Iver) was the site's then-album of the year. Rock bands are in short supply, with both Nickelback and Black Keys admirers right now, and our biggest star in music is Adele, whose chief attribute is her relatability for chrissake. Except for Lady Gaga, who is waning, and Nicki Minaj, who's more puppet than master these days, there is a glaring lack of "legendary" types on the charts. Not many myths trailed Gotye's or Carly Rae Jepsen's flukes.
Ocean screams "artist" with a capital 'A' more than any of the above, however; and not just partly because nothing stands out on Orange as a traditional single. ("Thinkin Bout You" in this spare, Drake-dried landscape, perhaps? Or "Sweet Life"? Or the already-anointed "Bad Religion" a surprisingly demure power ballad?) The whole record is simultaneously relaxed and fast-paced; there's just no time to bore anyone. The songwriting is flexible but rarely calls attention to its own oddities. While there's no stroke as complete as "Novocaine" or "American Wedding" from his illegal debut, the entire stitched-together hour feels like it can't afford to lose a second. Despite that mythical exterior, though, Ocean sacrifices one big rock sin on the altar: professionalism. For R&B he's a loon. But he's so sane that he could never get too crazy. And if rockists insist they'd rather hear Nickelback or Neutral Milk Hotel, he might even be nice enough to fake a few bars.