Frank Ocean – ‘Channel Orange’: Round 43 – Rob’s choice

Channel Orange - Frank OceanFrank Ocean’s debut album proper was the most critically lauded of 2012. It shifted a few copies too reaching number 2 in both the UK and US album charts and, crucially, hitting the top spot in Norway. Not, perhaps, the most obvious choice for DRC but it seemed important to play it for two reasons. Firstly, we had a great ‘End Of Year’ before Christmas meeting where this thing never even came up, other than for my fellow members to confirm that they hadn’t heard it. It seemed unfair or at least remiss for us to let the year close without paying proper attention to its most talked about record. Secondly, I love it. At least as much as any record this year, it has glued itself to the inside of my head and proved unshiftable. If Jo has to hear me woozily declaring “Got on my buttercream/silk shirt and it’s Versace” just once more, I fear for my safety. And yet I can’t help myself, even though i’m actually wearing a green wooly jumper.

So what’s left to say? How about we assume you’ve heard everything and move on. Now i’ll tell you what I think. It’s a great album. Sweet songs, produced and delivered exquisitely, combining an almost brazen restraint, so poised and almost infuriatingly fabulous as to be illegal, with unadorned, unshowy and, largely because of this, beautiful vocal melodies. That’ll do for starters, in fact it’s sufficient to make this a classic album, but there’s more. It’s also a seriously impressive artistic statement.

There has been some discussion and debate, at best unresolvable hairshirted posturing, at worst bullheaded stupidity, about whether Frank Ocean and some contemporaries are ‘hipster/indie R&B’. I have no idea. I don’t know enough about R&B. Which is precisely the sort of fly-by-night attitude that has apparently caused offence to those who think great music is best left unappreciated by as many people as possible. I do know that when I’ve attempted to engage with artists like Usher and R Kelly i’ve quickly grown tired of what seem to me to be their paper thin concerns: having money, having girls, er… that’s it. Lyrically, Frank Ocean takes a rapier to the vacant rich. ‘Channel Orange’ is as keen a dissection of entitlement and the spiritual bankruptcy which it precipitates as i’ve heard. Both ‘Sweet Life’ and ‘Super Rich Kids’ could have been lifted wholesale from late-period JG Ballard if he’d used Hollywood as his milieu rather than the French Riviera.

Like many, I started to really pay attention to Frank Ocean when I read his now famous open letter which dealt with a prior relationship with a man. It goes without saying (which is partly the problem) that it’s a disgrace that this should be such a transgressive act in R&B, hip-hop, music, culture, life. Whatever, the letter is beautifully written and bravely published.  I have no interest in how many women/girls R Kelly has slept with and how cataclysmically happy they were with the whole experience and, no matter how technically astonishing, how texturally breathtaking his music is, i’m really never going to be interested. But Frank Ocean seems like different sort of artist, an enquiring, dissatisfied artist and, to boot, a sensitive, astute and real human being. Those seem like good things to me. This might make me a lily-livered hipster (the former: maybe, the latter: I wish) and indeed, 90% of contemporary R&B might consist of fascinating political and philosophical enquiry set to astonishing machine-tooled beats, in which case i’m missing out.

But that’s okay for now, because ‘Channel Orange’ is pretty damned good.

Tom Listened: For me, this meeting more or less created its own theme – confounding expectations. Both Radiohead and modern day R&B have managed to convince me in the past that I have no interest in them. 90s Radiohead I really tried to like but they were too whiny and maudlin and they seemed to take themselves VERY seriously. R&B was a turn off for all the reasons Rob has stated, plus…I just didn’t like the songs – let’s face it, I Believe I Can Fly is not a million miles away from some of The Lighthouse Family’s worst atrocities (and there are plenty of those to choose from).

Curiously for me, however, many of Rob’s stated misgivings with regard to R&B I find are echoed by much of the Hip-Hop I have heard. Misogyny? Check. Avarice? Check. Hell, you often get a dose of gangland aggression and intimidation thrown in for good measure! That’s why, when we were listening to Niggamortis way back in Round 6, Nick and Rob’s reactions to my own (no doubt poorly articulated) misgivings left me somewhat confused. Maybe I have misunderstood what the bulk of Hip Hop is trying to do. Maybe Rob is prepared to overlook the subject matter because he likes the music. Maybe Nick doesn’t have a problem with the subject matter at all; he is quite ganglandy after all!

One of the points I made in April 2011 (!) was to do with the uniformity of the artwork and packaging of Hip-Hop and how this implies a homogeneity of ethos and values. This is much the same in R&B. I have never understood why a recording artist wouldn’t want to stand outside the crowd, to let their work speak for itself without having to buy into the genre, to be in the club. It is fascinating that Frank Ocean (and Death Grips and (to a lesser extent) Madvilliany) have all been selected by Rob for record club, all are trying to push the boundaries or alter expectations and, tellingly, you would never know by looking at the album covers (or from the names of the artists themselves for that matter) that these works fit into their assigned genres (although all, it seems to me, are not THAT easy to pigeonhole in the first place). Personally, I feel this is a very healthy thing, it suggests to me that the artists are confident enough to exist without the safety net of the club/gang and, in the process, bend the rules and produce something interesting, fresh and ground-breaking. After all, the truly influential records are usually the ones that have only been able to be categorized by the genre they have spawned precisely because there hasn’t been one for them to inhabit when the record was released.

So, I loved Channel Orange, I was thrilled by lack of cliche, the songs sounded great and I am very glad it exists. About bloody time I say. Why did it take so long?

Nick listened: I’ve dipped my toe into contemporary R&B on several occasions, via Kelis, Maxwell, D’Angelo, Aaliya, plus R&B-leaning popstars like Justin Timberlake and hip-hoppers like Missy Elliot. I’ve been particularly obsessed by Timbaland and The Neptunes, ravenously hoovering up individual tracks they’d produced for other people (from Björk to Bubba Sparxxx to Britney Spears).

But I’ve never really fallen for R&B’s charms when it comes to album-length expositions of the genre, which is part of the reason why I’d avoided Channel Orange until the other night when Rob stuck it in the CD player. The “indie R&B” talk wafting around the internet hasn’t helped either; if you’re going to engage with a genre it ought to be on its own terms, not because it’s suddenly perceived as pandering to you as an audience (especially when the “indie” audience is essentially middle-class white boys, who don’t really need pandering to. Do they?). (R&B also needs approximately zero help being ‘experimental’, either – Timbaland routinely churned out the most radical-sounding music I heard at the start of the naughties.)

Channel Orange still suffered from several of the symptoms that have blighted enjoyment of other R&B albums for me – it’s longer than I’d like, doesn’t vary pace much, injects short skits into the running order, etcetera. None of the tunes jumped out at me on first listen like the best Stevie Wonder or Curtis Mayfield songs do, either. (Granted, expecting this is like expecting indie bands to churn out “We Can Work It Out” every other song.)

But it was, as Rob and Tom pointed out, refreshingly sensitive and lacking in braggadocio, without swan-diving into the kind of mystical sex bullshit Maxwell made his own, either. There’s not the thrill of weird spirituality and musicianship that underpins D’Angelo’s Voodoo, but the lyrical and musical palettes on show both reach beyond slow jams and avarice, which, even though I’m obviously as gangland as heck, yo, I do find off-putting.

The raging sceptic in me suspects that some of the acclaim hoisted upon Channel Orange by critics is due to the sudden rush of affirmation experienced when the thing previously fetishised as ‘other’ suddenly makes tokenistic nods towards the aesthetic of your critical comfort zone. But that’s insanely cynical of me. And, you know, the listener in me did enjoy Channel Orange enough, on first listen, to want to hear it again.

Rob responded: Just wanted to add that ‘Channel Orange’ isn’t packed with hooks. Its restraint is one of it’s most delicious features, something I tried but failed to express after too much coffee the day I wrote my piece. It’s definitely a grower and worth sticking with. Secondly, let’s separate what happened to the album when it got into the wild from what it actually contains. I don’t hear any leanings towards ‘indie’ in it at all. It’s a straight urban record. If the hipster crowd decided it was leaning towards their territory (as they clearly did) then that’s about what happened between their ears and their brains and how that got filtered by whichever tumblr they were getting their direction from that week.

Graham listened but is so not able to offer anything further to the debate above: R&B is not my thing at all. Rob caught my attention with his introduction and I’m glad I listened to the whole thing. Without DRC as a conduit I would normally turn over the radio if something like this came on. It sounded like straightforward R&B to me but the back story kept me interested for once. I quite liked the few hooky bits and skits throughout. That’s it really.

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