Offbeat Beats: Channel ORANGE, Frank Ocean
Channel ORANGE, Frank Ocean - or quite possibly one of the best studio album debuts ever.
Offbeat Beats is a series that tries to bring to you and explore a variety of interesting and unique albums that you may not have heard of.
There really haven’t been many major label debuts like Chanel ORANGE, period. Dropped in July 2012, the album soared to no. 2 on the Billboard top 100, received rave reviews from pretty much every major music publication, was voted best album of 2012 by a whole array of them including Billboard, EW, Spin, The Guardian, and the LA Times, was nominated for 4 grammys (and won 1), and has since has been called one of the best reviewed albums of the decade by Metacritic. To reiterate, this is his debut studio album. It speaks to the immense respect that this artist is held in that even with only two studio albums in the last five years (the other being 2016’s also-critically-acclaimed Blonde), he is still considered one of the top R&B singers and one of the top singer-songwriters overall in the music industry. So, in what is coming up to it’s 5th anniversary (in July), this week we’re taking a look at this seminal album, and the effect and legacy that it’s had on modern R&B music.
Christopher Frank Ocean (born Christopher Edwin Breax), stage name Frank Ocean, had been a part of the mainstream music industry since he was 18. Since being pushed out of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Frank Ocean moved to Los Angeles to continue his music career. Having signed a songwriting deal with Def Jam records, he spent the next 6 years achieving musical success but increasing artistic frustration as he churned through the behind-the-scenes revolving-door of the modern day corporate music scene. Although he rose up through the ranks, writing for everyone from Justin Bieber to Beyoncé, releasing a well-received mixtape, and appearing on Kanye and Jay Z’s 2011 hit-pumping modern arena-banger Watch the Throne; he got little opportunities to shine as a solo artist. Until one day, when he released a certain track called ‘Thinkin Bout You’ on his tumblr (and this isn’t the first time his tumblr’s going to make the news…). Awkward really, considering that it was actually the demo track for another Def jam artist - Bridget Kelly’s eventually renamed ‘thinking about forever’; and even more so because it was quite significantly better received then her version ever was - the studio version hit 32 on the Billboard top 100. Either way, spurred on by the success and finally with the studio’s approval, Project ORANGE finally arrived a year later.
Project ORANGE is astonishing, depressing, uplifting, sometimes somehow all at once. Taking stylistic influences from the history of R&B, and blending them with modern synths, drums, production; the result is some beautifully confident, beautifully conceived step forward - rooted in the past yet challenging, historic and modern, familiar and yet new. It dragged R&B in a new, darker, more mysterious direction - taking a snapshot of the genre’s history then smearing it with these delightfully depraved elements of house, grunge, twisted dance, and punch-drunk club. Yet for all this innovation, the album realizes that the real star is Ocean’s voice, and never drowns it, letting that carry the thesis and weight of the album whilst finding ways to elevate and surround it in different ways. And really though, what a vocal performance it is. From ‘Thinkin Bout You’s’ sumptuous falsetto that slaps you round the face 30 seconds in, to ‘Pyramid’ and the way it’s so delicately underplayed surrounded by synths and drums and overdriven guitar riffs, to the gospel-tinged Bad Religion and the way his voice travels and soars around the organ and strings backdrop. It never falls into the genre’s trap of being over-played or overdone, and still carries enormous emotional weight with every wavering note. Especially given the context surrounding it’s release, an open-letter revealing that his first love as a 19 year old was a man (posted on that aforementioned tumblr account), the touchingly written and heartbreakingly open-wounded narratives woven around the music take on another dimension of meaning. The album - and particularly tracks like Forrest Gump - take on even more meaning, not just as brave and defiant challenges of outdated and antiquated thinking, but every song and every moment of sadness even more poignant given the social context of America and it’s unfortunate history of dealing with sexual orientation. Project ORANGE then is beautifully written, beautifully performed, socially conscious, boundary pushing, and refreshingly and defiantly open-minded - sorry, did you say this was his debut studio album?
Featured image via.
Listen to Channel ORANGE on Spotify Here: