One Year On: Frank Ocean's channel ORANGE

As told by letlive.’s Jason Aalon Butler...

It’s perhaps only with the significant passage of time, from an impact date to the present day, that the importance of an album can truly be assessed. Several early days plays will paint a distinct picture of the art at hand, yes. But then, six months or more later, are you still as enamoured? Often, the answer is no.

Frank Ocean’s debut album proper, ‘channel ORANGE’ (9/10 Clash review), is one of those sets that many can agree stands up as wonderfully today as it did on release 12 months ago, in July 2012. There are numerous Clash staffers who turn to the record with no little regularity, suiting as it does several moods. Ostensibly R&B but shot through with more influences than that banner often implies, exploring lyrical tangents peers would shy from, it’s a record which snakes its way around the senses, supple yet more than capable of biting down hard.

Clash was already working on an article highlighting the enduring appeal of ‘channel ORANGE’ when word reached us that letlive. frontman Jason Aalon Butler is just as huge a fan of the set as we are. So, we handed the responsibility of revisiting Ocean’s modern-day masterpiece over to the livewire vocalist, and waited. And waited.

(For those of you at the back: Los Angeles post-hardcore quartet letlive. comprise one of the most visceral live experiences on the circuit right now. Their emotions-charged recordings are standout examples of how caustic rock can meet considered introspection and observational wit without diluting any element. The band’s third LP, ‘The Blackest Beautiful’, was released in early July and is reviewed here.)

And then: ping. The inbox shuddered. Here are Butler’s words on what will, surely, still be considered a classic another 10 years, or 20, or more, down the line.

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Frank Ocean, ‘Pyramids’, from ‘channel ORANGE’

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letlive., ‘Banshee (Ghost Fame)’, from ‘The Blackest Beautiful’

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If you are reading this then you are most likely aware of the fact that we use language to communicate. Specific languages designated by regions, cultures and, of course, people. With these languages come particularities and inherent limitations based on the aforementioned, which often times keep those not privy to the language being utilised “out of the loop”.

There are a few things existing in this world that can serve as transcendental tools to communicate universally, which would otherwise be inaccessible. Some argue that numbers are the key to worldly communication. Then there are those rose-lensed optimists vouching for love as the “Big T”: truth. Then there’s me, alongside a collection of peers I’m assuming could constitute an entire culture, believing that music is the primary tool in truly transcending.

All of the antecedent verbosity was comprised in order to prop up an album that has truly utilised that language, music, to change things. Not only sonically, but also serving progressively within the culture. Here’s how.

‘channel ORANGE’ enhances the most cherished properties of R&B while simultaneously employing modern elements, as well as blazing audio trails for listeners and artists to travel upon. From the jump, this record is something captivatingly aberrant with no actual music per se, but familiar sounds of technology and childhood (for those of us of the PlayStation era): not typically expected to precede an album on which you’re anticipating smooth, sultry tones and well-trained vocal folds setting a romantic/sexual tone. At least that’s how I used to enjoy my R&B.

Directly following said track you are introduced to this man. A man who understands his music almost as well as he understands himself. Delicately weaving through the beautiful composition, he’s painting a picture with lyrics, illustrating a moment in time as Ocean recalls it.

Now, in this lies the most common challenge for most artists, where you are attempting to honour your artistic self with symbolism and cryptic speak while engaging the listener with relatable content and/or familiar situations they can connect with. Somehow, Frank is able to make you feel as though he is telling your story atop intelligently stimulating beats laced with intoxicating instrumentation.

Intermittently yet deliberately placed throughout the album are reminders of the conceptual character it holds. Tracks like the ‘80s blender commercial jingle ‘Fertilizer’ or the inspirational telethon vibe of ‘Pilot Jones’ both carry a playful sense of creativity, foreshadowing the divulgence that the next story is one you would swear is your own. It’s almost as if he has studied psychology at some point in his life and integrated methods of narrative therapy to involve you in his journey. Smart move, Franky.

I have unabashedly praised this artist for his musical stylings, but what I feel may be just as important, if not more, is the incredibly brave and enlightened approach taken with the content. In this album we are brought from the amorous dimension of ‘Thinkin Bout You’ to the latchkey kid references of ‘Super Rich Kids’: a rather impressive duality.

The politics that so unfortunately prevail in the disenfranchised communities in the USA are dangerously illuminated in tracks like ‘Crack Rock’, and every f*cked scenario that has been denied and manipulated by major media seems to be granted a small dose of retribution with lines like, “F*ckin' pig get shot, 300 men will search for me / My brother get popped, and don’t no one hear the sound.”

These words are so insightfully abrasive I can't help but feel that this man is just as punk rock as he is smooth. Not to mention it is opuses like this that reach the disaffected and offer them the affection they feel has been stripped from them by our all-too-obviously flawed system.

Another milestone in the culture that was granted to the world by ‘channel ORANGE’ was an unprecedented display of sexuality when we were offered a viewing of an extremely heart-wrenching scenario on Ocean's blog prior to the album’s release. We were guided through a very intricate series of thoughts and events about his first love. Unexpectedly, after reaching the latter part of the first paragraph, you learn that this first love he has opened himself up to explain is, in fact, another man.

That, to me, was not only courageous, but necessary. It was not only beautiful, but true. In a world, more specifically a culture, where homosexuality and bisexuality have been ignorantly rebuked and bated, I feel this man, who happens to be in an incredibly influential position, took a step in the only direction he felt appropriate. The direction that led him to be honest with himself and anyone who cares to know him.

I will not redirect this album review toward a LGBT rights tangent, but I will say that what he did was monumental within this realm. I would also like to say that he just loved someone. The same way any other human being loves another human being. Whether they are of the opposite or same sex. He knew love. I can only hope his testimony can shed light on his exhibition of love as a man but, more importantly, a human being and aid in the eradication of fear and misunderstanding in R&B and hip-hop. After reading the entry and hearing the album I felt I was able to listen to its soundtrack. Some real shit.

Unlike his previous (mixtape) effort, ‘nostalgia, ULTRA’ – which was the first hit I took, that sealed my addicted fate – there are no borrowed pieces of music on ‘channel ORANGE’ and there is certainly nobody you can credit for lending him these ideas. They are truly a product of his mind and his mind only. I believe the blatancy of his signature is what seals this album as one of the most progressive and necessary albums for current R&B. From the music itself to the content, this album has thwarted itself into a realm that will receive very little scrutiny simply because most of what you observe has never been done before in this regard. That is what makes an album seminal and an artist a legend.

I'm not one to idolise, but I am one to revere other humans for being instrumental in progress. So I’d like to take this moment to congratulate Frank Ocean for this pivotal piece of progress in music and the society in which I exist. Oh yeah, and to tell him to holler at a player. I got some shit we could collab on. Holler.

Words: Jason Aalon Butler

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Frank Ocean, ‘Thinkin Bout You’, from ‘channel ORANGE’

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letlive., ‘Muther’, from ‘Fake History’

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