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Frank Ocean: Channel Orange
We are now on the cusp of a new era for r&b and hip-hop. In the last five years or so, urban music – for a lack of a better term – has slowly begun to shed its perceived destructive image. Gangsters and pimps have been replaced by intellectuals, poets and artistes.
This isn’t a case of underground and mainstream; quite the contrary. Take Odd Future (OFWGKTA or Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All) for example and soulful member Frank Ocean. Having seemingly emerged from nowhere, the smooth-voiced 24 year-old has found fame through collaborations with the likes of hip-hop royals, Jay Z and Kanye West.
New album Channel Orange has been somewhat eclipsed by Ocean’s admission of having been in a same-sex relationship; an announcement that has been met with equal amounts of praise and silence from the industry.
Either way, Ocean has delivered a brilliant r&b album that is tinted with sincerity, flair and the occasional adolescent eruption. Ocean’s lyrics touch on the heartbreak of love, the ambiguity of religion and the disillusionment of youth amongst other subjects.
After a nonentity of an opening track, the real music surfaces with ‘Thinkin Bout You’; three minutes of uncontainable smooth r&b that is as floaty and dreamy as it is generic. But it’s in songs such as ‘Sierra Leone’ that he comes into his own, which hints at Marvin Gaye and Al Green inspirations. With simple, body-swinging, finger-clicking melodies, this and ‘Sweet Life’ put his voice centre stage as an outright r&b singer.
Songs such as ‘Super Rich Kids’, which features Odd Future rapper Earl Sweatshirt, and ‘Pink Matter’, which sees Andre 3000 make an appearance, allow Ocean to have a bit more fun, lyrically. Both songs are still very much rooted in a mesh of 70s and 90s r&b and so anyone looking for something as jagged as Odd Future’s usual output may well be disappointed.
Another standout is short instrumental piece, ‘White’, which features the guitar skills of one John Mayer. Yielding from his pop inclinations, Mayer’s relaxed guitar melody latches on to Ocean’s bouncy beats effortlessly.
There’s forever a fear that when an r&b sensation emerges that they may be the next Neo or, God forbid, Chris Brown. Without being spectacular, Frank Ocean has firmly cemented his place as a pure r&b singer whose collaborations and affiliations pay tribute to his versatility. At twenty-four, Ocean has already made himself a go-to for rappers looking for a catchy hook, but based on Channel Orange alone, he’ll be more than a fad.
One of the shortest tracks on the album is ‘DMT Song’. Created with the help of bassist/vocalist, Thundercat, it is the most vocally dense song on the record. Slow and dreamy, with high-pitched, slightly dissonant, vocals, it's a good intro to the next track, ‘The Nightcaller’. Aptly titled, this song features a groovy dance bass underneath a synthesizer melody that sounds ideal for waving your arms around on the dance floor.
‘Getting There’, with vocals by Niki Randa, is reminiscent of Massive Attack. Not only because of the elongated vocals, but the muffled bass beat and dreamy bell sounds could certainly also have spawned from the brains of 3D and Daddy G. The same goes for ‘Hunger’; a song that sounds like it was recorded underwater and also features Randa. Its spacious melody is broken up by a bridge with echoing vocals and harpsichord-like keyboards.
Erykah Badu is the only vocalist to appear on the album that Flying Lotus hasn’t worked with previously. Her vocals work really well on the African sounding track ‘See Thru To U’ - hopefully, Badu will become incorporated into Ellison’s fixed team of vocalists.
‘Putty Boy Strut’ sounds like a broken toy gone mental, with a catchy musical theme that returns in the deeper layers of ‘Me Yesterday/Corded’.
‘Electric Candyman’ features vocals by Radiohead frontman, Thom Yorke, and is a slow track with male and female vocal melodies mixed together in a way that almost sounds disorienting. Yorke’s voice is hardly recognisable, which seems like a waste considering his great, and highly distinguishable, vocal abilities.
For the last five or so years, hip-hop has been in a state of transition.
While rap royals Jay Z and Kanye are sat along fashion runways and frolicking with Kardashians, old guards Dre and Snoop are undergoing
steroid-induced makeovers, adopting new animals to their names and jumping on
the David Guetta bandwagon. It's like a weird hip-hop mid-life crisis.
Outside of the circus, ‘nerd-rapper’, A$AP Rocky, has been carving out a niche of his own – one that has already set the hip-hop net over a much wider audience.
This is a young man who, during his early teens, was exposed to the worst of it. With an incarcerated father and an older brother slain, the Harlem native – born Rakim Mayers – was named after one half of legendary rap twosome, Eric B. & Rakim. A perfect recipe for a long, prosperous rap career, no?
With tongue firmly planted in cheek, A$AP Rocky’s debut LP, LONG.LIVE.A$AP, sources an eclectic range of influences – some of which are still very contemporary. And herein lays the biggest problem. Tracks like ‘PMW (All I Really Need)’ and ‘Fashion Killa’ are very much rooted in the cymbal-heavy southern brand of hip-hop that the likes of Lil Wayne have exhausted in recent times. It’s too distinctive of a sound to digest as a sincere stimulus for an artist who, after huge critical acclaim for 2011 mix tape, Live. Love. A$AP, hasn’t quite hit the heights set out for him.
But for every derivative on this album, there’s a gem. Title-track and album opener, ‘Long Live A$AP’, and single, ‘Goldie’, flaunt A$AP Rocky’s best and most endearing attributes. The songs are broody and unhurried, but maintain an underlying playfulness and mischief.
‘F**kin’ Problems’, featuring Drake, 2 Chainz and Kendrick Lamar, translates a similar musical disposition but through a grander, more dramatic sound, while Santigold’s appearance on ‘Hell’ adds a much needed effeminacy to what is a testosterone-fuelled album.
This is the type of record that you want to love. But there’s something elementary missing. Had it not been for a year of hype, LONG.LIVE.A$AP might have struggled to make an immediate impact on what is becoming a gimmicked market. There are no immediate, standout hits and nothing to sideswipe you from leftfield.
For over a year, we’d been told that A$AP Rocky is a complex, absorbing artist with a unique world view. This album simply doesn’t show that. But at twenty four, he’s already proven to be a real student of hip-hop and in this day and age, that’s worth something.