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CD review: Frank Ocean's 'Channel Orange'

Frank Ocean

Channel Orange


Posted 7:42am on Wednesday, Jul. 18, 2012

These days, Frank Ocean is drowning in love.

A member of the controversial hip-hop collective Odd Future, Ocean (born Christopher Breaux) turned heads and endeared himself to LGBTQ activists this month with an admirably candid open letter discussing his ambiguous sexuality.

He stoked critical and commercial anticipation with an assured turn on last year's brilliant Jay-Z and Kanye West collaboration, Watch the Throne, and his own confident mixtape, Nostalgia, Ultra. He plays a sold-out show at Dallas' South Side Music Hall on Friday night.

Now, after much impatient waiting, the 24-year-old Ocean's major-label debut LP arrives on a tidal wave of hype and high expectations.

Watching the run-up to this album's release -- it dropped a week early on iTunes, prompting Target to boycott carrying physical copies in protest -- has been a master class in controlling the conversation in an era rife with unexpected leaks, intimate contact with artists and the ever-fickle Internet.

And while Channel Orange is very good, if overlong at 56 minutes (a common R&B affliction these days), it's not quite the sweeping declaration of self (or masterpiece) some might be expecting. Instead, it's a haunting record obsessed with romance and establishing meaningful connections in an age of depersonalized digital existence.

"I'm searching for a real love," Ocean croons near the end of the laid-back Super Rich Kids, delivering the plea in a manner drained of all urgency. Much like contemporaries the Weeknd or Drake, Ocean is diffident and disconnected, numbed by his need for human contact.

Yet, again and again throughout Channel Orange, he doesn't deal in abstracts, grounding these 17 tracks in relatable imagery. Whether it's the stripper heading off to work another shift in Pyramids, the grim fallout from drug abuse in Crack Rock or the lustful yearning in Forrest Gump, Ocean speaks plainly about himself and others.

The record also benefits from lush production, overseen by Ocean, Pharrell Williams, Malay and Om'Mas Keith, that frequently feels like slipping into a warm bath. Layering strings underneath Ocean's heartbreaking falsetto, minimalist beats drenched in endless echoes and spare electric piano lines evoke a significant swath of R&B history, from Stevie Wonder to Prince and Usher. As is customary for young guns, Ocean builds on the past while making it feel fresh.

Channel Orange aches for love throughout, but it is Ocean's deft articulation of his bruised heart and restless mind that guarantee he will be admired (and emulated) for years to come.

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