by Jon Hunt
Let me tell you something, friends: the R&B and hip-hop scenes in the last few years of the ’00s were all about utter, stuck-in-the-swamp stagnation. ‘Tweren’t a rap album released for a couple years there that didn’t have the words “Wu” and “Tang” (and occasionally “Kanye” and “West”) on it that was any goddamn good, and the R&B records from that thankfully brief era were just a series of energy-sucking coos, exhortations to “get it on” that came off as honest and as sexual as a peanut butter and banana sandwich from mom’s kitchen. Everything was going around and around in an endless loop of minor-key ding-dings and shuffle beats that sounded like a parody of the worst bits of Dre’s records from ten years before. The best thing going – and this says something – was a guileless, occasionally brilliant return to a pure 1965 Motown sound, but everybody knows once a genre starts eating itself and staring into its own navel, it’s probably doomed anyway, no matter how good the records are.
Which is why the last couple years have been so damn exciting, R&B-wise. It’s not been an explosion of genre-pushing new stuff, exactly – not like in 1963 or ’65 or the early-to-mid-’70s or the early ’80s or the early ’90s, anyway. The last time was maybe the New Jack Swing, remember that? That felt like a genuine Different Thing, an Energy, a Rush, a Push, A Shove. Though at a pinch, some of the neo-soul stuff in the early ’00s felt like it mighta been something, but in all fairness what it was was an all-too-brief storm in a teacup.
But there’s definitely the sense that young hip-hoppers and R&B guys (the ones that matter, anyway – I’m not talking about Flo Rida here, his stuff is just better-produced versions of “Ice Cream and Cake”) aren’t just recycling the same old shit in a different basket, fronting with their increasingly unbelievable “tough” poses and the sense that their listening habits amounted to “whatever shit happened to be on the radio at the time.” Uh uh. Weirdly, these guys seem to be listening to not even just “other hip-hop” and “other soul,” but a weirdly wide array of stuff that appears to start with Radiohead’s Kid A and moving on from there, not to mention all the great soul records from the ’70s (a healthy amount of Here, My Dear and Fulfillingness’ First Finale to begin with).
And from that starting point, folks like the Odd Future crew and Canada’s The Weeknd and The-Dream and my man of the hour, Frank Ocean, are crafting albums, actual soul albums, stuff that pushes the genre into new territory but holds together marvelously as a singular listening experience and not just a series of stuck-together hitmakin’ tries with filler in between. And this in an era when people are swearing up and down that the album as a format is rotting in the ground — nuh uh. It isn’t. It’s just that when you don’t make an album worth a goddamn, an album that’s just a commercial cash-in recorded in between yacht excursions and club fights, people instinctively know it. And when they do make an album worth a goddamn, as with last year’s nostalgia, ULTRA and the trio of great Weeknd records, and Tyler The Creator’s records and now Ocean’s Channel ORANGE – well, maybe the radio won’t touch ‘em because there ain’t a single to be found, but when you’re actually taking the time to craft Art, like honest to Christ, capital-a Art (remember that stuff? It’s out of style now, but it still matters) people will, it turns out, stand up and take notice and buy your record in droves (or download ‘em. Half the records I name-checked in this paragraph are available for free).
S’weird, too, because Channel ORANGE is a pretty low-key album. It ain’t a bump-and-grind like the new Usher, nor is it a series of slow-jam come-ons, nor is it cheeba-sucking stoner stuff. It’s really just an album of mature, mellow charms; like the slower, sadder bits off a Donny Hathaway record or – even closer – like Someday Man or Pet Sounds. It’s also a record of frank talk – fluid, shifting sexuality mixing with some harsh F. Scott Fitzgerald-esque dressings-down of the very rich/very pretty, and there’s lots of failed and never-happened relationships to navigate through. It doesn’t sound at first blush like the kind of thing people would buy in the kind of numbers they are, but that means underestimating the listening audience by quite a lot (who knew?), especially the audience that actually buys R&B music. They realize (even just subconsciously!) what a plastic, soul-sucking bunch of bullshit they has foisted on them for a couple years, there, and what a breath of fresh air this stuff is, and they’re ready for it.
Reference points are all over the map: I hear a hell of a lot of neo-soul a la D’Angelo (but with 90% less macho posturing – you’re not gonna find Frank Ocean whipping his shirt off in a video anytime soon). I hear indie rock in there – I know he’s been listening to Radiohead (samples ‘em on nostalgia, ULTRA) but I think he’s also been playing Bon Iver, the xx, and Dirty Projectors. Or at least that shit is cross pollinating with this shit. I know he’s been listening to Elton John, and not just because of the bounce he copped from “Bennie and the Jets” found on “Super Rich Kids,” but because of the ability to sustain an earthy, honest vibe across an entire record (a la Tumbleweed Connection). I also know he’s been listening to Stevie Wonder, Donny Hathaway, Marvin Gaye (the less abstract stuff – not What’s Going On, really, more M.P.G.) – or if he hasn’t, he’s somehow lit upon the same thing as those guys, that genuine mix of sadness/joy that is complex R&B music at its very best.
A lot has been made of Frank’s lyrics, and they’re as good as the hype suggests – witty, charming, darkly comic at times, never falling back on R&B cliches and often, like the best fiction or drama, inhabiting characters like the louché jerks at the heart of “Super Rich Kids” or “Lost” or the heartbroken lovers of “Thinkin’ Bout You” and the career-making “Bad Religion.” Less, oddly, has been made of what a great songwriter he is – listen to the easy way he draws a melody across the gorgeously jazzy chords of “Monks,” for example, or the way he slips into falsetto on the choruses of “Thinkin’ About You.” Listen to the insistent, minor-key-isms of “Lost,” which could live on a Walkmen record, maybe, and in a perfect world should be a hit. Listen to how the melody of “Forrest Gump,” his ode to – dunno, a boy he likes, probably, but would you take getting likened to Gump as a compliment? – sounds, in places, like Mott the Hoople more than it sounds like soul music, or like the Venn-diagram-middle-ground between the two. He knows his way around a tune, knows how to craft a hook, knows when to drop into abstract mode, knows when to play it cool and when to get the fuck out of there.
It ain’t all sleepy stuff, either. There’s plenty of tunes with plenty of bounce on this sucker. “Sweet Life” bubbles along nicely on a Love Unlimited-ish horn chart and a popcorn Rhodes, for example. “Monks” actually has a drum part you’d call “slamming.” The aforementioned “Lost” has a nice little Cars beat that’ll drive into your brain. And “Pyramids” – ah, “Pyramids.” One of the album’s two stone masterpieces. Normally, unless I was sitting down with an Emerson, Lake and Palmer record with the intention of listening to some complicated/ridiculous shit, I’d take a song to task for passing the five minute mark, and this song’s nine minutes definitely surpasses that. Thing is: it’s marvelous, no filler, no slack, no rambling. It builds into a deeply funky roiling boil before turning into a wickedly weird slow jam, the whole thing an ode to Cleopatra, whom he woos and seduces and flatters and, you know, takes to bed. It’s hot and funky and absolutely delicious, all nine minutes of it.
Of course, the most talked about song on the album is/will be the utter knockout “Bad Religion.”* It’s absolutely staggering. Short, just 2:55, but enough emotion/disappointment/sadness in that time to absolutely choke you, married to a stunning melody and one of the best vocal performances I’ve heard in ages. He says it all at the song’s apex, in a hurt falsetto, in front of an intensely swirling string section and a gorgeously droning organ: “Unrequited love/to me it’s just a one man cult/and cyanide in my styrofoam cup/I can never make him love me.”
It’s amazing to think this is technically his first album – nostalgia, ULTRA was a mix tape, really, propelled mainly by samples of familiar songs, and as good as it was there was the sense that it was just a trial balloon. There’s every reason to believe that Frank Ocean will continue to progress ever upwards and in a few years we might look back on Channel ORANGE as unformed and nascent, but in the here and now – in the midst of a creative explosion that’s just beginning and a new sound for R&B records at fucking last after years of bitter stagnation and boredom and a sense that the genre was dying out in the face of nostalgia/idiocy/record company nib-nobs – it looks like nothing less than the best record of the year so far. It’s gorgeous, forward-thinking, heartfelt, and filled with a warm, organic sound that even devoted fans of “the old stuff” are gonna love. And that, my friends, is very good news indeed.
*If you haven’t seen his performance of this song from Jimmy Fallon’s show, backed by the Roots and a string section, you have to. Now.