Marketing in art can be a risky business: on one hand it guarantees exposure, notoriety and automatic publicity; but on the other, it can become your music's worst enemy, if the public feels you've overdone it. Frank Ocean, the second star on board the Odd Future mother-ship (though at the moment he's more like the actual captain of the collective), announced he's bisexual - and that, four years ago, he was in love with a man - days before he released his highly anticipated official major label debut, “channel ORANGE”. Though not everybody bought into it, especially those who are used to hip-hop's pre-release promotion antics, the effect of his coming out was overwhelming and unstoppable: not even the smartest Harvard marketing graduate could have come up with a more convincing promotion campaign than that message. And the repercussions, disproportionate because of the musical context (hip-hop and R&B, with all the homophobic connotations implied), prompted the artist to move the release one week forward, first on iTunes, in order to take full advantage of the buzz.
Do we believe his declaration? Can anyone deny the correlation between one event and the other? Is Frank Ocean bisexual, homosexual, or just a not too fussy heterosexual? Whichever the answer, if you get caught by these tracks, those questions don't matter at all, which speaks to the merit of the album: it makes us forget about everything that's been talked about during the days prior to the release, the moment the record starts playing. Outing, liberation, hip-hop; it's all just chit chat when the music starts playing. “channel ORANGE” has countless virtues, but two stand out: the first is that it shows the maturation and artistic growth we expected after “nostalgia, ULTRA”, which it surpasses on every level. A rare feat in these days of mixtape overload: to meet the highest expectations with a major label debut, after such a great street album. And second: it's an album that improves R&B in every aspect - dignifying it, reassessing and elevating it - like The Weeknd did last year, using resources and mechanisms that aren't very common in the most popular brands of the genre.
Frank Ocean's main weapon is his song-writing talent and worth, two qualities especially hard to find among some of the most famous singers in present R&B, many of whom are all too submissive to the rules of producers and professional songwriters (who more often than not end up defining the artist's musical personality, instead of the other way around, as with the Odd Future member). “channel ORANGE” is one of the best conceived and expressed R&B records of recent times, mixing the classic sounds and emotional depth of Marvin Gaye and Donny Hathaway with the sensuality of Maxwell, the hotness of R. Kelly, the structures of The-Dream and the innovation of The Weeknd. It generously exposes his inner world and, very importantly, is conscious of his undeniable links to pop.
The record is carried by four tracks that are essential to understand 2012: “Thinkin Bout You”, “Sweet Life”, “Pyramids”, and “Lost”. The first (a song R. Kelly or The-Dream would kill for) is, at first sight, a classic heartbreak song - but the video, and the artist's playful use of double meanings and lyrical parables could lead to different interpretations. It's a constant with Ocean and on this “channel ORANGE” even more so: the need to make his lyrics free to interpretation, in order to allow the listener to fit together the pieces of the puzzle. All too often, R&B is overly prosaic, too obvious, and one of Frank Ocean's qualities as a songwriter is his ability to escape from all that, leaving his audience free.
“Sweet Life”, made with the help of Pharrell, one of the few cameos on the album, is the ultimate summer anthem: its particular invocation of joie de vivre sounds sophisticated and irresistible. But it's on “Pyramids” where he ultimately proves he's not just another songwriter and that his ambition is boundless. The track is almost ten minutes of Italians Do It Better-like disco, with constant changes in dynamic, rhythm and tonality, and, most of all, jubilant lyrics about an imaginary meeting with Cleopatra, full of exciting lyrical labyrinths. Lastly, “Lost” is most likely the most convincing and brilliant single ever delivered by the Californian, a clear candidate to become the song of coming months, Frank Ocean at his poppiest. We could add “Bad Religion” to the selection, a surprisingly pastoral track, and “Forrest Gump”, which, apart from being the song that led the singer to talk about his sexual orientation, is a beautiful love song, written from the viewpoint of Jenny (Robin Wright), Forrest Gump's eternal love interest.
Ocean gave his songs a very personal and well defined production, perfect for the emotional bomb of imaginative parables and creative lyrics that it is. Wary of the sugary sentimentalism an over-produced sound can bring (with fast beats, digital arrogance and an epic studio feel), he uses intimate sounds, powerful beats, meticulous and very lively instrumentation, and low-intensity electronica. And he no longer needs to sample any indie bands in order to fit his sound to his voice, or to give it melodic meaning, which is another step forward from its predecessor. His sound is new, very fresh, well-balanced between experimentation and orthodoxy, between classic soul and modern indie-R&B. It is an incomparable mix (because nobody's done it before) of electro, jazz, ambient, funk and soul-pop. All of this gives his persona even more relevance and impact. It contextualises the greatness of the album, on a major label, made under the highest pressure.