The Work of a Writer and Musician of Expansive Vision: Channel Orange by Frank Ocean

By Daniel Garrett

FrankOcean, Channel Orange
Island Def Jam Music Group, 2012

Listening to “Thinkin’ Bout You” on FrankOcean’s album Channel Orange, one immediately notices the speaking quality of his voice.  It is not hard to recognize that Christopher Francis Breaux, the young New Orleans native who performs as Frank Ocean and now lives in Los Angeles, grew up within the age of hip-hop: although he can sing according to traditional standards, sometimes his intonation is merely that of speech—he can have that casual, rough talking sound we have been forced to get used to not only from rappers but singers in the age of hip-hop, the kind of thing that made some of us wonder if certain performers had ever heard someone actually sing, the voice taking off into the air like a bird, gliding upwards in beautiful, graceful flight.  Yet, Frank Ocean is someone who survives that first, disheartening impression: Frank Ocean draws from different forms of music—funk, hip-hop, rock; and listening to all of Channel Orange, it is easy to conclude that he is to be placed among the most promising of artists.  Ocean, whose mix-tape Nostalgia, Ultra (2011) began to bring him acclaim, has worked with Beyonce and John Legend, and been affiliated with the scatological rap collective Odd Future; and with Channel Ocean Frank Ocean confirms the soundness of expectations for his work, proving himself as a writer and a man with a vision.

On Channel Orange’s “Sierra Leone,” the narrator is involved in an affair with a woman, claims Sierra Leone as his home, and says he has a daughter—Frank Ocean is filling his songs with details, with life.  That song’s music has what sound like hand drums and electronic washes, and the swirling strings and soothing tone of Ocean’s voice almost make the composition a lullaby.  FrankOcean is beginning to use all the tools in his kit.  Ocean describes black bourgeois life in “Sweet Life”—a situation both serene and surreal, and a subject that never gets enough attention, being one antidote to the dreary descriptions of black poverty—and Ocean does not merely stop at describing luxury, but shows the damage that is there: freedom can accompany wealth, but, here, despite the presence of a landscaper and a housekeeper, life is circumscribed since thinking is circumscribed: “So why see the world when you got the beach?”  That is self-satisfied provincialism, the opposite of sophistication.  In “Super Rich Kids,” more spoken than sung, the children have “nothing but loose ends” and “nothing but fake friends.”  The tune has a heavy beat (I thought of Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets”); and there is a droll listing of the amenities, and the absences of real contact.  The narrator, who thinks of suicide but lacks the necessary courage or piercing pain for it, admits that “my silver spoon has fed me good.”

Frank Ocean moves from high life to low life.  “I ain’t been touched in a while,” claims the singer-songwriter’s narrator in “Pilot Jones,” and its continuing lyrics point to alienation, slovenliness, and addiction as part of the atmosphere.  It is free lyric association regarding an indulgent state that seems more troubled than liberated.  FrankOcean, through language, through the texture of music, has found a way to suggest how deep, how mundane, and how overwhelming experience can be.  Human experience—whether birth, learning, friendship, love, work, death, or grief—is always about more than one thing; and the meaning of experience can be ambiguous, and complex beyond common perception or acceptance; and yet we search for simple concepts and labels with which to brand experience, perpetually trying to corral the difficulties, liberties, and pleasures of life.  However, wildness bursts through.  Sometimes language, rather than a fence, is a window or a door.

With a jazz-funk musical texture, in the composition “Crack Rock” infatuation and addiction share the dangerous abdication of self-protection, and crime and familial distrust walk in the wake of addiction.  Its verbal text cites the disparate worth attached to different lives.  Here, the timbre of Ocean’s voice is attractively thick and warm, though his iteration of the phrase “crack rock” sounds like an alarm.  “How’s the gutter doing?” is the song’s last line.  A club dancer is compared to Cleopatra in the longish, conceivably epic “Pyramids”—possibly an invocation, and a revision, of that decades old trope of referring to black women as African queens—and amid the shifting musical structure of “Pyramids” it is easy to see in the practical, tawdry life of an unemployed man watching his female lover dress for work that there is a great difference between a queen and a dancer.  (The song’s rhythm reminds me of a Ray Parker Jr. riff, something it is easy to imagine a woman hearing as she strips off her clothes.)  Sometimes low-life has its rewards and thrills, as in “Lost,” which—after the stark presentation of voice against what sounds like a bass—has a mostly light sound and a dark message, and contains a roll call of cities, including Tokyo: drift does not always feel like drift.  Girls of differing nationalities are promiscuous and devout in “Monks.”

One can listen to Frank Ocean and think of both Walt Whitman and Stevie Wonder: one can think of poetry and song, of bisexuality and multiculturalism, of the private and the public.  It is a cliché of romance that one lover wants to give the world to another: it is the kind of promise that only millionaires or artists in their work can fulfill—and Frank Ocean seems to be trying to give his listeners the world.  Yet, he is arriving at generosity through pain as well as pleasure; and in “Bad Religion” there is a confession to a stranger, a taxi driver, about a love affair with a man that has not gone well, a composition that may have a biographical source; and in that song, Frank Ocean sings, “If it brings me to my knees, it’s a bad religion” and “I could never make him love me.”  Ocean repeats the phrase “love me” and that is a repetition that brings to mind two things for me—James Baldwin’s Another Country, that great modern novel of love and sex in defiance of social categories, in which one young musician seems to be asking through his horn, “Do you love me?,” playing that phrase—“love me”—over and over, or at least that is what one of his listeners hears; and the Dreamgirls song “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” which repeats the phrase too.  It remains a poignant plea.

Masculinity, one form of strength, has been an ideal for many black men, as they were prevented for a very long time from assuming the responsibility and respect of manhood: feminism and gay liberation seemed new strategies to delay that handling of power.  Sensitivity itself then can seem weakness rather than gift.  It is a world of conflicts, and of interpretations that compete, as artists and intellectuals know.  Shortly before his album Channel Orange’s was offered for purchase, Frank Ocean acknowledged that his first serious love affair was with a man, an admission that drew some support from his peers, and international press, and some predictable internet nastiness.  Using insights that seemed gained from feminism and literature rather than the pseudo-machismo of rock music, the music critic Ann Powers, a writer for The Los Angeles Times and a National Public Radio commentator, astutely observed on NPR’s site, July 5, 2012: “In his note, instead of embracing an identity, Ocean shared a set of memories and explored complex feelings, just as he does in his songs.  Unlike the standard coming out gesture—newsman Anderson Cooper’s public email to his friend Andrew Sullivan, ‘The fact is, I’m gay’—Ocean’s presented sexuality as something that arises within particular circumstances, defined by shifting desire and individual encounters rather than solidifying as an identity.”

It is rare for the mainstream press to pay significant attention to an African-American artist, reporting with respect on his work, his life, and his thoughts.  The reporters and their editors do that when a great deal of money or power is at stake—or when public attention has made them know that a genuine phenomenon is occurring.  Spin magazine’s Mike Powell has written that Frank Ocean represents a story we want to tell ourselves, a story about survival, artistic integrity, and courage.  In the July 4, 2012 New York Times, Jon Caramanica wrote about his own visit in Los Angeles with Frank Ocean, observing, “He makes warm, cloudy soul with echoes of Stevie Wonder, Prince and Pharrell Williams that’s almost never about seduction.  In Mr. Ocean’s universe, pretty much everyone is broken beyond repair.”  The article, which talked about Christopher Francis Breaux’s fatherless childhood, and initially reserved but eventually open manner, and his (Frank Ocean’s) plans to move out of California—possibly to New York or Toronto, was reportage that operated as an intimate introduction of Frank Ocean to that newspaper’s audience of privilege and status—and ignorance.

Of course, The New Yorker (July 23, 2012) followed suit, with writer Sasha Frere-Jones making a desperate gesture to name Frank Ocean’s antecedents—“most obviously D’Angelo’s quiet and vague masterpiece from 2000, Voodoo; Marvin Gaye’s simmering, brutal 1978 album, Here, My Dear; and Prince’s first seven albums”—though Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder, Sly Stone, Michael Jackson, and Terence Trent D’Arby as well as Luther Vandross, Brian McKnight, Maxwell, Rahsaan Patterson, and Donnie are the names to be reckoned with.  (I am curious to know, as well, how FrankOcean relates his work to that of Diana Ross, Donna Summer, Janet Jackson, and Mariah Carey, performers of glamour, liberty, personality, pleasure, and sensitivity.)  The facts: It is Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder, and Sly Stone who portrayed pain and possibility in the social world.  It is Michael Jackson, more than anyone, who revealed the utter torments of the soul in popular music.  It is Rahsaan Patterson and Donnie, two contemporary rhythm-and-blues performers, who, before FrankOcean, spoke of love and sex between men.  What can one expect of journalists and critics who rarely pay attention, except when the cash registers are loudly ringing?  The artistic tradition exists apart from that.  The political tradition exists apart from that—and FrankOcean is walking through a door opened by the artist James Baldwin and the political activist Bayard Rustin.  It is an unusual door, but one that was known to jazz composer Billy Strayhorn, rock-and-roll pioneer Little Richard, and disco singer Sylvester.  Of course, in that carnival city New Orleans, the jazz and rhythm-and-blues pianist James Booker, a black gay man, was a respected eccentric—and the city has been known for years for its feminine but tough black gay male rappers, some of whom appear in female dress.  Then again, the black gay ghetto, whether in New Orleans or New York, is far from any sane person’s idea of paradise: and it is impossible to exaggerate the petty spite and stupidity of some of the people found there.  However, what may be difficult for certain observers of culture to accept about FrankOcean is that he does not appear to be a freak: yet, he expands the definition of the normal.

Frank Ocean is an explorer—he has traversed territory but not found his home yet.  Deservedly, but also luckily, the reviews for Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange have been good: no doubt, in time, there will be a reversal of opinion on his talent and worth—as that seems to happen to nearly every artist, especially to African-American artists who insists on their own perspective and power, as the culture finds it strategic to forget the accomplishments of the past—thereby, current activity can look new and necessary and be exploited for greater profit; but now Frank Ocean has the support, if not the protection, of consensus.  He might survive.  He might develop.  In Paste (July 18, 2012), Lane Billings wrote, “Restraint is key to the execution of Channel Orange, a neo-R&B album that, for all its layered beauty, never overwhelms.  Ocean’s not one to shout his words, so his well-wrought stories reveal themselves as organic, integrated parts of the mix,” though I suspect that what Lane Billings calls restraint are qualities of contemplation and dignity that Billings may not have expected; and despite Billings’ announced reservations about “Sierra Leone,” “Monks,” and “Pink Matter,” Billings also noted that “the sunny, Motown-inspired choruses of ‘Sweet Life’ and ‘Forrest Gump’ recall Stevie Wonder for all the right reasons.”

I hope to see Frank Ocean and his work described in the future with insight and sympathy by writers such as Kandia Crazy Horse, Samuel Delany, Christopher John Farley, Rob Fields, Nelson George, Farah Griffin, Ernest Hardy, Claudrena Harold, Martin Johnson, Randall Kenan, Sarah Rodman, Tricia Rose, Gene Seymour, and Greg Tate—to name but a few critics, journalists, and scholars whom I imagine know something about the difficulty of survival and creation for an artist like Ocean.  Hurricanes and record label neglect and one failed love affair are nothing compared to an ordinary day in a complex black man’s life, in a country in which for hundreds of years slavery and social discrimination were the official law of the land, buttressed by the threat and fact of personal violence, a place in which conflict, ignorance, and prejudice remain despite significant social progress.  The knowing alone can be excruciating—and FrankOcean’s Channel Ocean only begins to suggest that.

Years ago, writing about the value of the great Sidney Poitier—in work such as A Raisin in the Sun—James Baldwin (The Cross of Redemption) talked about the general failure of African-Americans to find an accurate public portrait of their lives, something that inclined them to distrust Negro celebrities.  Since then, there have been a variety of portraits, but, perversely, many blacks tend to trust most those celebrities who seem ordinary—which is to say, not particularly gifted, and lacking significant intellect and refinement: the worst rather than the best is affirmed.  Of course, people of imagination, intellect, and introspection, people of genuine quality, are mysterious—and mystery, the core of individuality, is distrusted.  The things that make people different are likely to be suspect, a fact that joins the minority with the majority population.  What a perilous path a unique artist must walk.

Giving someone the world today means giving both the beauty and the mess.  I hope that one day FrankOcean will write out of happiness, whether that is rooted in wisdom, love, or personal accomplishment.  Would that be as acceptable as writing about decadence and despair?  FrankOcean, with Channel Orange, seems to have articulated a vision of the world that is being embraced in different quarters.  Time will tell the significance of that.  People have a way of flirting with what is difficult or true, without making any firm commitment.  Would that really surprise Ocean?  “You’re good at being bad,” FrankOcean sings in “Pink Matter,” a song about erotic pleasure containing too much cursing, and which in its music calls to mind Sly and the Family Stone, a comparison by which Ocean is not dwarfed.  In Ocean’s idiosyncratic, strangely sensuous “Forrest Gump” the narrator uses the cinema figure as a symbol of someone odd, distant, remembered, and desired, someone “so buff and so strong,” an imaginary person who is everywhere, a trope for an elusive, near-mythic personality, absent and present.  It is nicely perplexing.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today.  Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader.