That’s a pretty big trunk on my Lincoln town car, ain’t it? starts the tenth song on an album that made its way into my life while I was writing my Masters thesis. I was living in a town people often describe as objectively beautiful, but in the depths of turning very complicated thoughts into 30 000 words I saw only shadows. I’d come across Swim Good on a mixtape a friend made to usher in the Spring, and although I’d later learn that there are plenty of songs on Nostalgia, Ultra worthy of praise, I couldn’t pull myself away from that song’s sophisticated, radical songwriting. It was the black suit, Ocean impeccably dressed for his own burial, the determined driving, the confident threat at the beginning of each chorus. Like many, I was bewitched into thinking that the (then) 23 year-old had been sent from New Orleans to save R&B.
July, 2012 is barely two weeks old and Frank Ocean has revealed that his first love was a man who didn’t love him back the way he’d wanted him to, and his studio debut, Channel ORANGE is enjoying a thunderous standing ovation (see this, that, this, that and that). But that was expected. Thinking Bout You, Pyramids and Sweet Life were hints that his talent is nothing short of explosive. As Julianne Escobedo Shepherd wrote upon hearing the album and later writing about Ocean’s coming out, ‘ I kept wondering if I was feeling the same way people felt the first time they heard Purple Rain or Hot Buttered Soul.‘ In Channel ORANGE, Ocean is not afraid to fly — the brilliant Super Rich Kids is sparse and strategic, lifting the listener with each chord change. Another diamond, Lost came on as I was leaving Liverpool Street station on my way to work this morning, and made me stop dead somewhere between a group of teenagers handing out breakfast bars and the crowd waiting for the 149 bus. Uptempo meets self-destruction, yet I still wanted to know the extent to which a character in a song can ruin her own life. There are several moments (Sierra Leone! Forrest Gump!) that made my stomach somersault, the way Stevie always has. And I’m not alone, I hear, in being so moved by Ocean’s skills I had to take a moment. And then there’s Pyramids. The song stands defiantly alone — earth shattering production, lyrical games so layered they vibrate, and a short story critics will be dissecting for years to come. I am aligned with Escobedo Shepard’s instinct that Channel ORANGE is an unmistakable milestone.
In addition to being a member of Odd Future, Frank Ocean is in demand, with international superstars singing his praises and his songs. And coming out on the brink of an elegant debut has turned every spotlight on the young musician. He is OFWGKTA’s second Out member, and his ability to fit in a group often criticised for their homophobic lyrics has no doubt been brought up. However, 2011′s We All Try is perhaps evidence that there are complexities between friends, bandmates and their work that the public is not always privy to. As a (*huge) fan, reading his declaration that he is now a ‘free man’ made me happy to know that the young people who will grow up on his music can now appreciate his contributions in new ways. It also made me think of Songs for Women, a song that still makes me wonder who I dentify with more: the girl who offers to park her car and ride the bus with the dude, or the guy with the amazing vinyl collection. That comes as no surprise though, because that sort of self-reflection is Textbook Frank Ocean.
Channel Orange is out in stores on July 17th, and currently available on iTunes.