Frank Ocean hits new highs with ambitious, personal R&B album

William Malsam

Frank Ocean just may be the future of R&B; well, at least he has done everything right so far. Originally from Louisiana, Ocean moved to California after Hurricane Katrina ravaged his hometown. His talents were quickly recognized, and Ocean secured a job writing for artists such as Brandy, Justin Bieber and John Legend. He rejuvenated his songwriting with the help of his friend Tyler, the Creator in the group Odd Future and subsequently appeared on Kanye’s and Jay-Z’s album “Watch the Throne.”

These well-placed steps, plus a successful mixtape, opened the door to Ocean’s debut album “Channel Orange.” Regardless of his intentions, his July Fourth Tumblr post concerning his sexuality further heightened the buzz around the album’s release. Of course, listeners should disregard the artist’s orientation and focus on the music, but this bold step demonstrates a sincerity and confidence that pervades the album.

His daring is made evident by his second single “Pyramids” which is a 10 minute long epic, a length which is nearly unheard of in the genre. This single shows his aversion to cheap, sweet singles that many of his contemporaries release and his affinity for craftsmanship. “Channel Orange” is an album of considerable length at 55 minutes, but it exhibits a smooth flow featuring short, light-hearted transitional tracks reminiscent of ‘90s R&B albums, one of which spotlights John Mayer’s silky guitar on “White.”

The 12 main tracks contain a sound influenced by jazz, soul and well-placed electronic effects. Most of the songs are fairly somber, and they are carried by electric piano and understated drums. This combination provides a terrific backdrop for Ocean’s appealingly sultry voice. His words have the ability to rise to a high and emotional pitch, only to descend as delicately as a leaf to a personal spoken tone. The album isn’t entirely melancholy — ­“Monks” has powerful drumming and “Crack Rock” has funky slap-bass.

His lyrics have depth and touch on the complacency of wealth, heartbreak and even the nature of the human mind. Rather than praise material goods like many of his R&B contemporaries, Ocean exposes the dangers of having everything you want. He poses the question, “So, why see the world when you got the beach?” in “Sweet Life”, and exposes in “Super Rich Kids” that although they have everything in excess, they are still “searching for a real love. His love ballads, such as “Bad Religion,” are heart wrenchingly personal, and he fearlessly uses the pronouns “he” and “him.”

“Channel Orange” is a gem of an album because it’s entirely genuine. Ocean refuses to filter his emotions, words or sound. My only wish for the album is that there were more rapped verses to provide more variety to the sound and feel. However, this release still sets a new benchmark in modern R&B and pop music.