Sunday, February 10, 2013

Ocean Trip

. . . I remember, how could I forget how you feel?
You know you were my first time, a new feel.
It won't ever get old,
not in my soul, not in my spirit.
Keep it alive.

– "Thinkin' 'Bout You"
Frank Ocean

Lately I've been enjoying Channel Orange, the debut album of singer-songwriter Frank Ocean. At tonight's 55th Grammy Awards ceremony, Ocean is nominated for Best New Artist, while Channel Orange is up for Album of the Year. (10:30 p.m. Update: Frank Ocean won two Grammy Awards this evening, one for Best Urban Contemporary Album, and one for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration for "No Church In The Wild" by Jay-Z and Kanye West featuring Frank Ocean and The Dream. Mumford & Sons won Album of the Year for Babel. For a complete list of 2013 Grammy winners, click here).

In his February 8 profile of Ocean for Entertainment Weekly, Kyle Anderson outlines the singer's start in music.

Raised in New Orleans as Christopher Breaux and known to his friends as Lonny, he was displaced after Hurricane Katrina and landed in Los Angeles, where he signed a publishing deal that swiftly found him writing songs for Beyoncé and John Legend. His work so impressed producer Christopher "Tricky" Stewart, the man behind smashes like Rihanna's "Umbrella" and Beyoncé's "Single Ladies," that Stewart signed him to Island Def Jam (also home to Kanye West and Justin Bieber) in 2009 and helmed his blog-beloved 2011 mixtape, Nostalgia, Ultra.

Vocally, Ocean describes himself as "a baritone, with tenor moments," and I must admit that it's Ocean's voice that's a major reason why I find myself so mesmerized by Channel Orange. Like Maxwell, another R&B vocalist I appreciate, Frank Ocean isn't afraid to use his falsetto  – and the result is simply beautiful, especially on the finely-wrought "Thinkin' 'Bout You," of which The Guardian's Michael Cragg writes:

[I]t's a sumptuous, string-laden ode to an unattainable relationship featuring the best falsetto since, well, Usher's "Climax" earlier this year.

Entertainment Weekly refers to Ocean as a "gene-bending hip-hop artist," one whose music has been described by Wikipedia as "idiosyncratic in style." Ocean's compositions are often midtempo and feature electronic keyboard backed by a subdued rhythm section, while the music itself is characterized by unconventional melodies and experimental song structures. About Ocean's songwriting, Jon Pareles of The New York Times observes "echoes of self-guided, innovative R&B songwriters like Prince, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Maxwell, Erykah Badu and particularly R. Kelly and [Ocean's] way of writing melodies that hover between speech and song, asymmetrical and syncopated."

I think Ocean's music is best described as trip-hop, a sub-genre of hip-hop usually consisting of down-tempo electronic music, often experimental in nature, and containing influences of soul, funk, R&B, and/or jazz. Also, musically and lyrically Channel Orange is a trippy experience. It takes us on a mind (and heart) expanding journey beyond surface things, be they the "domesticated paradise" of Ladera Heights ("Sweet Life") or a taxi cab conversation ("Bad Religion"). So, yes, it's a unsettling trip at times, but one that's ultimately worth it, with Channel Orange exploring the often surreal highs and lows resulting from substance use ("Crack Rock"), relationships ("Pyramids") and, more often than not, various combinations of the two ("Monk," "Pilot Jones," "Pleasure Over Matter"). British music critic Rebecca Nicholson notes that the album "has a fascination with decadence in the midst of decline, but its protagonists are equally sad and lost. The album's narratives take in drug addicts, strippers, but also rich kids ruined by consumerism." Vacuous lifestyles are perceptively observed and critiqued by Ocean ("Sweet Life," "Super Rich Kids," "Lost"), while elsewhere on Channel Orange, a deep longing for authentic connection is achingly expressed ("Thinkin' 'Bout You," "Bad Religion"). It's worth noting that the focus of Ocean's longing in both these sublime songs is another man.

Much has been made of the fact that on July 4, 2012, just days before the release of Channel Orange, Ocean published an open letter on his Tumblr site recounting unrequited feelings he had experienced for another young man when he was nineteen years old. He cited this experience as his first true love, and used his posting to thank the man for his influence. Ocean also thanked his mother and other friends, saying, "I don't know what happens now, and that's alrite [sic]. I don't have any secrets I need kept anymore . . . I feel like a free man."

In response to Ocean's "coming out," Russell Simmons, a business magnate in the hip hop industry, wrote a congratulatory article in Global Grind, saying in part:

Today is a big day for hip-hop. It is a day that will define who we really are. How compassionate will we be? How loving can we be? How inclusive are we? . . . Your decision to go public about your sexual orientation gives hope and light to so many young people still living in fear.

Author Terrance Dean also wrote an open letter in which he expressed support and gratitude to Ocean, while artists Beyoncé and Jay-Z added their voices in public support.

In an exclusive interview with Rebecca Nicholson of the UK's Guardian newspaper, Ocean spoke with moving honesty about his reasons for coming out. Following are excerpts from Nicholson's July 20 article.

Ocean didn't come out spontaneously . . . He wrote his letter in December 2011, to include in the sleevenotes for Channel Orange, pre-empting any potential speculation that might arise from some of its songs obviously addressing men. "I knew that I was writing in a way that people would ask questions," he explains. "I knew that my star was rising, and I knew that if I waited I would always have somebody that I respected be able to encourage me to wait longer, to not say it till who knows when." He's not one for playing the game, clearly. "It was important for me to know that when I go out on the road and I do these things, that I'm looking at people who are applauding because of an appreciation for me," he says. "I don't have many secrets, so if you know that, and you're still applauding . . . it may be some sort of sick validation but it was important to me. When I heard people talking about certain, you know, 'pronouns' in the writing of the record, I just wanted to – like I said on the post – offer some clarity; clarify, before the fire got too wild and the conversation became too unfocused and murky."

Later that evening, when he performs to a near-hysterical crowd, a line like "You're so buff and so strong, I'm nervous . . . You run my mind, boy" sounds astonishingly subversive, hammering home how rarely we hear overtly same-sex songs, no matter what the genre. Asked why he didn't fall back on the generic "you", he shrugs: "When you write a song like 'Forrest Gump,' the subject can't be androgynous. It requires an unnecessary amount of effort. I don't fear anybody . . ." he laughs, making eye contact at last, his face lighting up, ". . . at all. So, to answer your question, yes, I could have easily changed the words. But for what? I just feel like it's just another time now. I have no interest in contributing to that, especially with my art. It's the one thing that I know will outlive me . . .

Both "Thinkin' 'Bout You" and "Bad Religion" are inspired by Ocean's experience of unrequited same-sex love. Reviewing Ocean's July 26, 2012 performance at New York City's Terminal 5, Jon Pareles notes the following about "Bad Religion," its inspiration, and its reception that night by the audience:

The biggest roar came when Mr. Ocean performed "Bad Religion," a song lamenting an unrequited love for a man. Just before [Channel Orange] appeared, Mr. Ocean revealed on his Tumblr site that his first true love was for a man. “It was my life, you know?” he said onstage. “And I felt the need to say that, so I did.” Over hymn-like organ chords, Mr. Ocean confessed, “I could never make him love me,” leaping to a perfect wordless falsetto peal. . . . [T]he moment was pensive and vulnerable, and gratefully shared.

It really is a beautiful song, and Frank Ocean made an equally beautiful and brave choice when on July 10, 2012, he sang "Bad Religion" on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon for his television performance debut . . .

Taxi driver, be my shrink for the hour.
Leave the meter running.
It's rush hour, so take the streets if you wanna.
Just outrun the demons, could you.
He said, "Allah Hu Akbar,"
I told him don't curse me.
"Bo bo you need prayer."
I guess it couldn't hurt me
if it brings me to my knees.
It's a bad religion,
this unrequited love.
To me it's nothing but a one man cult
and cyanide in my styrofoam cup.
I could never make him love me,
never make him love me.
Love me, love me, love me, love me.

. . . It's a bad religion
to be in love with someone
who could never love you.
Only bad, only bad religion
could have me feeling the way I do.

In closing, I share an excerpt from Jeff Himmelman's February 7 New York Times Magazine feature, "Frank Ocean Can Fly."

. . . Some records, rare records, become a part of your life. They arrive at just the right moment and take over for a while, mapping familiar terrain in unexpected ways. For a lot of people, people with very different backgrounds and preferences, Channel Orange was this kind of record. Music magazines like SPIN and Paste named Channel Orange the album of the year, while Rolling Stone put it at No. 2. Saturday Night Live invited Ocean to be the musical guest for its season opener in September. He has been compared to Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Prince, J. D. Salinger and Joan Didion, among many others. And this weekend, at the 55th Annual Grammy Awards, Ocean is up for six different prizes, including Best New Artist, Record of the Year and Album of the Year.

Like Ocean in person, the album is challenging. It demands to be taken on its own terms, and in places it puts you to work. For a first-time listener, things don’t fall into a "put this on at your party" rhythm until the fifth track, "Sweet Life," and even then Ocean makes you stop immediately afterward for one of the album’s many non-musical interludes. But once you’ve taken the entire album in, its internal logic — the interludes, the snippets of found audio, the song order, the sudden toggles between bravado and vulnerability in Ocean’s lyric style — begins to reveal itself. "The best song wasn’t the single," Ocean intones at the outset of "Sweet Life," and by the second or third time around you find yourself singing along, convinced.

. . . Vocally, he can do whatever he wants with his falsetto — woodwind, siren, everything in between — but mostly he just wants you to hear the songs, to locate without diversion the moments that refract the emotional content of the stories. "Crack Rock" is about drugs, to be sure, but when you hear that the addict’s family won’t let him hold an infant, you suddenly find yourself inside of the story, empathizing in ways you might never have expected to.

Drugs are the record’s dominant (and tragic) motif, but the true concern of Channel Orange is the inextricable mingling of love and loneliness, the attachment and disillusionment and euphoria and addiction and pain that result from losing yourself in something or someone else. As Ocean put it to me, "We’re talking about substances­, but we forget how intoxicating things that aren’t tangible, things that aren’t chemical substances, are. You forget about it. I’m saying, you know, love. Power. Money, which is power. Freedom. Honesty. Because that explicit truth I was talking about" — a reference to his open letter on Tumblr — "probably had the same effect [on me] as heroin does on some people."

The church-organ, deconstructed gospel confessional “Bad Religion” is the one undeniable masterpiece on the album. It is pure. In the song, Ocean is in a cab, talking to a driver who barely understands him. He wants to tell this man his secrets, to pour out his heart, in part because he knows the cabby won’t understand. It’s a metaphor for the record itself, for the act of making art, for how hard it is to tell anybody anything, for Ocean’s life in all of those years when he was hiding.

Forget about the [song's] pronouns. Who can hear those lines the way Ocean sings them and not see themselves, at some point in their lives? And who, after the rare scream that Ocean allows himself on this track, knowing all that we know about him, can fail to know that it is real?

Recommended Off-site Links:
Frank Ocean's Big Year, and What Hasn't Changed in Hip-Hop – Sam H. Sanders (National Public Radio, February 9, 2013).
Frank Ocean Can Fly – Jeff Himmelman (New York Times Magazine, February 7, 2013).
Frank Ocean's Rising Tide: How the Genre-Bending Hip-Hop Artist Swam to the Top of the Grammys – Kyle Anderson (Entertainment Weekly, February 7, 2013).
Frank Ocean Accuses Chris Brown of Homophobic Slur and for Threatening to Shoot Him – Joseph Patrick McCormick (Pink News, February 6, 2013).
Frank Ocean: The Most Talked About Man in Music – Rebecca Nicholson (The Guardian, July 20, 2012).
Frank Ocean's 'Orange' Revolution – Ken Tucker (National Public Radio, July 26, 2012).
Frank Ocean Opens Up About Sexuality – Erika Ramirez (Billboard, July 4, 2012).
A Close Look at Frank Ocean's Coming Out Letter – Ann Powers (National Public Radio, July 5, 2012).

Frank Ocean Calls Grammy Recognition 'An Honor' – James Dinh (MTV News, February 10, 2013).
Grammys 2013: Frank Ocean Wins for Urban Contemporary Album – Gerrick D. Kennedy (Los Angeles Times, February 10, 2013).
Frank Ocean Runs To Grammys Stage 'Forrest Gump'-Style – Rob Markman (MTV News, February 10, 2013).
Jay-Z, Frank Ocean, The-Dream Trade Jokes During Grammys Acceptance Speech – Rob Markman (MTV News, February 10, 2013).
Sore Loser: Chris Brown Loses Grammy To Frank Ocean, Stays Seated During Standing OvationThe Huffington Post (February 11, 2013).

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Quote of the Day – July 7, 2012
Homophobia? It's So Gay
Macklemore and Ryan Lewis' "Same Love"
Maxwell's Hidden Gem


Michael O'Sullivan said...

Thanks for this post. You have made me discover Frank Ocean. Just ordered Channel Orange and should have it tomorrow !

Michael J. Bayly said...

That's great, Michael! Be sure to visit again and share your thoughts once you've listened to the album a few times.