CHICAGO — In the summer of 2011, back before his blown-up image started selling thousands of records, I discovered Frank Ocean while looking through a batch of new releases, through a then-mysterious single called “Novacane.” First I was drawn in by the lyrics, with their Kubrick references, subtle wordplay, and evocations of a young man so passive-aggressively alienated that cocaine, Viagra, porn stars, sex, and even music can all go parading past him like a perfect LA daydream and he feels absolutely nothing. Then I realized I was addicted to the rich, polished keyboards and the expressive melody they provide. The song is a formal triumph. What sounds like warm commitment is in fact Ocean relishing his emotional isolation, digging his heels in further and further and liking it. This is a dangerous message, especially when kids are already using your records to escape the world in the first place. Sucker for dangerous messages that I am, I fell immediately in love.
Once I’d fully absorbed “Novacane,” I did some research on the singer, and found he was less obscure than I’d thought. Curiously, this sensitive crooner was a member I’d never noticed before of Odd Future, a group distinguished only for the exorbitant amount of cursing they indulge in (though Ocean has now nearly eclipsed them completely). At the time, Odd Future was famous due to its leader, an angry little boy known as Tyler the Creator, or possibly for the ridiculous antics of court jester Domo Genesis. But Ocean had his own mixtape, Nostalgia, Ultra, which had “Novacane” on it, and by the end of the year had become a critical favorite. Because four songs on Nostalgia, Ultra were Ocean’s covers/rewrites of already existing ones, most infamously an exact copy of “Hotel California” with Ocean’s (better) lyrics replacing the originals, the juiciest hype surrounding the record concerned Don Henley’s outrage over copyright violation. Then, on July 4, 2012, everything changed. With Channel Orange, his new, actually buyable album, set to hit the stores in a couple weeks, everybody was anticipating goodies anyway, so when he published a description of the first time he fell in love with a man on his Tumblr account, the critical sphere exploded with superlatives as though we’d never heard of Elton John or something. Ocean’s coming out was a brave thing to do under any circumstances, and it was timed exquisitely to boot — now we all wanted to hear Channel Orange more than ever. When it was released a week early on iTunes and wound up being everything we ever wanted and more, Ocean’s career seemed a pop miracle straight out of the handbook of Mr. Elton himself.
Channel Orange is the reason most people have heard of Ocean in the first place, and say whatever else you want, it’s hard to absorb head on. Upon first listen, it sounds unnecessarily subdued, its hooks lost in the seamless polish that unifies the record. Compared to Nostalgia Ultra, it’s slower, more relaxed; its songs wallow in the sumptuous musical beds set in place for them. Where the mixtape at least covered/sampled other songs to acknowledge the existence of an outside world, Channel Orange is self-contained and insular to the point of absurdity. And it’s a visionary piece of music from beginning to end. It’s so calm, so exquisite, so ridiculously seductive, I couldn’t help putting all my doubts aside and just immersing myself in the thing, and it was rewarding like you couldn’t believe. Ocean sings with warmth and undeniable sex appeal, and the music is drawn out only to maximize its aural delight. Basically, it just sounds so good, and so original, critics have been raving about it all year, including me. Every now and then an artist will come roaring out of nowhere to fascinate everyone, for us all to agree upon, to satisfy our collective need: critics, fans, kids, adults, most of all casual listeners. Ocean is one of these artists. Most people love him, some like him a lot, and that’s about everyone.
This all makes Ocean sound like an incredible anomaly, and in a sense he is. But examine the four artists whom Ocean covers on Nostalgia, Ultra and you’ll find that he fits in with each one of them: electrosentimentalist Mr. Hudson, celebrity-debauchery experts MGMT, Muzak titans Coldplay, and of course the Eagles. The Eagles are the kings of emotional isolation and L.A. daydreams. They were conservatives; they were maudlin and gooey. They were hip enough to manufacture an imagined Californian utopia, and all its fantastical pleasures, while ignoring the sheer human cost of such a vision. Forget changing the world; as alienated individualists, the Eagles needed a place to hide from the world, and sunny California was there for them. They conceived it foremost as a spiritual paradise because their individualism made them too scared to admit they needed material enablement, to admit they needed other people in their lives. Translated to record, this one-sided gratification simply sounded fictitious. Listening to them was like staring at the sun, like caramelized syrup, and singles like “Hotel California” and “Take It Easy” rank among the slickest, most deceptive mass art of the ‘70s. It is with this deception that Ocean finds himself obsessed. In American myth, Hollywood has long stood as the capital of escapist fulfillment; in rock & roll, this has been doubly so ever since the Beach Boys. Since Ocean happens to be alienated just like the Eagles, he too feels attracted to the place.
The Eagles are, of course, not the biggest influence on Ocean. Modern Hollywood fetishists are in fact rather common. His songs cut deeper into a culture of excess than, say, Drake’s luxury-rap, which gets bogged down in the trivialities of emotional drama, or Lana Del Rey’s soapy fuck-me-I’m-rich pop. But what the modern ones share that the Eagles don’t is the materialism. Where the Eagles’ feelgood attitude seemed to eschew physical things, these artists love their diamonds and swimming pools. Call it James Bond music – evocations of young, upper-class glamour so intense and accessible it feels like you’re living the life yourself. I’ve always found these records rather disturbing; they make you feel bad about your own life by comparing it with a lie. Ocean is the exception. Rather than indulging in the collective Hollywood fantasy, he examines it. Not only does he understand both physical luxury and emotional isolation, he is also obsessed with them on a keenly psychological level. His songs, especially the ones on Channel Orange, are where he hashes out these details, where he refines these distinctions.
It is no accident that with said thematics, Ocean’s sound amounts to the most sublime, most sensual pop synthesis in the past couple years if not the past decade. The sheer level of craft going into these songs is remarkable. Regardless of the words, this is the sound of unadulterated pleasure slowly seeping into your body, eventually overcoming you with sweet sensation. His piano loops, his glowing textural effects, his soft, silky falsetto-baritone back-and-forth, and the overall swell of the juicy music radiate sunshine. Though occasionally his melodies are soul-based (“Forrest Gump”, “Crack Rock”), more often he tends towards an off-kilter electropop centered on understated keyboards, while sequencers or whatever maintain a smooth, glassy atmosphere. The way he hides his coolest hooks in the background or even in the bassline; the way he subdues the electronic percussion with no considerable loss of momentum; the way he invents a theme on one instrument and then plays a variation of the theme on a variation of that instrument; these are all hallmarks of someone who has a natural musicality in his head and is trying as hard as he can to translate that musicality to record.
As with such artists, this translation is unlike anything we’ve ever heard before. The closest comparison would be late-‘90s free-form soul, but that had some funk to it and hence tapped an intense groove, while Ocean’s groove is slower and less immediate. The reason the only genre critics have been able to pigeonhole him under is “R&B,” a standard umbrella term for black pop you’re too lazy to actually describe, is that it’s the only umbrella term broad enough to include him. And although plenty of artists have experimented with this type of opulence, Channel Orange’s specific formal tour de force has no precedent: while its lyrics explore the Hollywood ethos of having everything all the time and the passivity that inevitably results from such privilege, a similar passivity is reached in the listener after enough exposure to its inconceivably rich music, the physical embodiment of the affluence he replicates verbally. This is what makes his message so dangerous and compelling. If these effects were at all unhealthy, surely they wouldn’t sound as irresistible as they do. Nevertheless, the question remains whether this passivity is good for you in the long run, especially whether it’s a good thing to experience coming from a widely accepted source.
Since we all think of modern popular music as beginning with rock & roll, most critics – most people, even – expect a certain amount of straightforward assertion in it. Critics tend to pan records for being toothless, for somehow not providing the edge, the anarchy, and the energy we have become accustomed to. Not that all pop records are edgy and energetic, to the contrary, but whenever an artist becomes capable of exercising a high level of cultural authority, it would be fair to assume that this artist also commands considerable pop accessibility. This is why Ocean’s success has been so unusual, because he has confounded our disposition towards instant gratification: it takes weeks to notice Channel Orange’s sonic details. Records that take a long time to sink in, especially the subtle ones, are typically for critics exclusively, not for a mass audience. Most likely, he has reached a mass audience because of his perceived glamour, because of how vividly his music brings Hollywood to mind, and in an economy as crippled as the present one, we could all use a little glamour. I do think the reason he has reached more people than Lana Del Rey is because his album sounds better, and because his art accounts for itself formally and hers does not. But despite my faith in said mass audience, I’m not sure the average Frank Ocean fan perceives a difference between Channel Orange and, say, Keeping Up With the Kardashians. If my politics were just a couple inches more to the left, I could see myself dismissing him as just another rich kid exploiting the popular taste, and this worries me. Ultimately, when I recommend the album, I’m only guessing that its lethargy amounts to a temporary escape, not a permanent pathology.
If these themes went unaddressed in the lyrics, most likely I would write the album off as another make-nice, cloying, Eagles-type deception. But Ocean doesn’t just talk about California; he also explicitly addresses the dangers that come with it. The chorus to “Sweet Life” goes “Why see the world when you got the beach?”, in “Pilot Jones” he complains about his lazy stoner girlfriend, sniping “You can’t get up and get a job,” and in “Pink Matter” he just comes out and describes the whole record: “My god she’s giving me pleasure, pleasure, pleasure, pleasure over matter,” with the vowels in “pleasure” all long and drawn out. It’s worth noting that his lyrical content is just as finely crafted as his music. I doubt his songs could work as pure poetry, but regardless, they’re filled with delicious details, names, settings, etc., in the context of some of the coolest literary devices out there: metaphors that are also literal (“A coke white tiger woke us from our slumber to guide and protect us to the end”), rhymes nearly as complicated as Eminem’s (“Ladera Heights”/”domesticated paradise”), and triple-at-least entendres (“I’m on that ledge/she grabs my arm/it’s good times yeah/sleeve rips off/I slip and fall/the market’s down like 60 stories/and some don’t end the way they should/my silver spoon has fed me good”). Think about that last one hard – every line has a double meaning that actually means something. With lines like these, the record is exploration rather than exploitation, an analysis rather than an extravagance.
What this all boils down to is that Ocean writes consciously, with each instrumental detail finely tuned, each turn of phrase deliberate. Many critics have noted how calculated/controlled Channel Orange is in respect to both the music and the words. When he evokes what comes across as an extremely decadent culture, he does so in order to make a statement about that culture, not because he belongs to it himself (although record sales may soon change that). Most artists, in attempting similar statements, typically confine themselves to the margins of whatever it is they are trying to analyze, but Ocean has enough formal imagination and musical passion to captivate his audience. His great theme may very well address a permanent pathology, but the way he distills it into four-minute songs constitutes a temporary escape. There is a certain pleasure to entitlement, that much is obvious. On Channel Orange and on parts of Nostalgia Ultra, especially “Novacane”, he extracts that pleasure for anyone to enjoy, all the while exposing its source as a lie. This makes him an impressive artist, and a prize of the popular taste. It makes him generous, unlike the ethos he sings about.