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Frank Ocean: Thinkin’ ‘Bout You
Super Rich Kids
From Channel Orange (Def Jam, 2012)

(Editor’s note: This comes from Elias Leight, a new, aspiring music writer out on the East Coast. He wrote asking for advice on forging a path into the world of music criticism. I wanted to give him a shot by testing his craft here. –O.W.

Frank Ocean went from working as a songwriter for Def Jam to singing hooks for Odd Future to anchoring tracks for Beyonce, Jay-Z and Kanye. Now he’s released his official debut, Channel Orange, which reflects his varied work, jumping quickly and working easily in different styles…and doesn’t mind a few wrong turns.

Channel Orange shares some qualities with Ocean’s previous Nostalgia Ultra mixtape/album – sonic clarity, earnestness — but it’s grounded more in keyboard-driven, 70s-tinged soul and funk. Many songs build around little keyboard riffs and flexible, prominent bass. There are sweet bursts of backing vocals, gutsier arrangements, and a slew of instruments he’s seemingly learned since the last project: strings, organs, horns, etc.

His songwriting has changed too; there’s more power and urgency of feeling. “Thinkin’ Bout You” begins with a string of nonsense — “A tornado flew around my room before you came/ Excuse the mess it made/ It usually doesn’t rain in southern California/ Much like Arizona” – before Ocean suddenly wiggles into the core of the song, “My eyes don’t shed tears, but boy they pour when I’m thinkin’ bout you.” When he switches from a stream of light-hearted free association to simple sentimentality, it’s unexpected but secure, giving you something easy to hold on to. The giddy, tangential opening complements the seriousness of the chorus, making Ocean endearingly bashful and appealingly in love.

The album can be split into three. The opening chunk — just a few songs — conveys a rich longing with smooth backing vocals, soft swathes of instrumentation, and aching falsetto. The second part of the album contains the album’s biggest beats and hooks; it jumps around, evoking the wild highs and lows created by the heady mix of romance, booze, and wealth described in the songs. The first few songs made it all seem easy, but here the real world intrudes. Things are complicated, warped, and intensified by drugs, alcohol, unemployment and apathy. The ups and downs are mimicked by the music, which moves between a full-throated soul chorus and a flat monologue, a rigidly monotonic beat and lithe, expressive vocals, powerful synth-funk and snapping slink.

For Channel Orange’s third section, Ocean favors slow arrangements with organ and strings, and he engages in a more abstract analysis of love. This can be risky. On “Thinkin’ Bout You,” Ocean used nonsense as cover and it heightened the effect of the chorus, but on “Pink Matter,” Ocean tries to make the nonsense important: “What do you think my brain is made for/ Is it just a container for the mind/ . . . Sensei replied what is your woman/ Is she just a container for the child?” You’re listening to a stoner’s monologue which doesn’t work as well if you’re not high yourself (and if you are, you might be falling asleep, because it’s paired with a plodding beat). Ocean does better when he sings a love song for Forrest Gump. After two serious songs, this one represents a nice change of pace – the chorus plays on Forrest’s temporary obsession with running. It also gains gravity from the songs that came before it, and, combined with Ocean’s sincerity, manages to be both funny and affecting.

Channel Orange reflects its maker’s career to this point — disjointed, ambitious, and versatile. Ocean is consistently surprising, though this means that he sometimes makes a distracting turn into a strange tale about corrupt drug-dealing cops. More often than not, his quick pivots illustrate the urgency, pain, and hilarity of love.

–Written by Elias Leight