Jonah Bromwich once confessed to chopping down an orange tree.
Everyone really wants Channel Orange to be a great album and that includes me. I’m a sucker for stories just like everyone else. I like the way that Frank Ocean opened up about his sexuality, I like the way it’s been received and I like Frank Ocean. I’m rooting for him. As is everyone else. And that’s why you’re seeing these hurried, discombobulated reviews, where critics are glossing over songs, quick to paint a picture of unbridled excellence rather than pausing to judge. Getting caught up in the rapture of the moment, rather than doing our jobs.
The fact is, Channel Orange is very good. But it shouldn’t achieve instant classic status just because we’re all impressed by Frank’s off-album maturity. There are seventeen tracks here. There are a lot of stories and themes, some of the best of which are a lot less self-serious than has been recognized. This is an album that makes fun of a stupid ex-lover by calling him “Forrest Gump.” That’s a joke. Frank Ocean is a human being and, occasionally, he likes to make stupid jokes.
The album starts with jokes like these; silly, bitter jokes coupled with reflections and true laments. “Thinking Bout You” is one of the best songs on Channel Orange, because it ably mixes the profound and the banal. “I’ve been thinking about forever” in falsetto on the chorus is nicely balanced by lines like “got a beach house I could sell you in Idaho” and “got a fighter jet I don’t get to fly it though.” These jokes help alleviate the weighty emotions the song is dealing with and ultimately help to make Ocean’ emotions seem more real.
The worst parts of Channel Orange come when Ocean refuses to make a joke, to break his pokerface, when he lectures instead of observing. “Crack Rock” takes itself incredibly seriously. The song abandons any kind of double-meaning after the first verse and becomes a pedantic, generalized sermon about crack users. “Bad Religion” which deserves kudos for its beauty, is similarly half-baked conceptually. By tying religion into a song about love, it appears to criticize Islam, which, while clearly not Ocean’s intent, is not a good look.
More often though, Ocean hits a sweet spot by making the “Sir Duke” standard a priority over purportedly profound statements–almost all these songs will move you. “Sweet Life,” “Super Rich Kids” and “Pink Matter” are damn near flawless. Second stringers “Lost” and “Monks” are occasionally bogged down by sloppy songwriting (the opening lines of the former, for example) but still manage to be excellent pop songs. As I’ve noted here already, “Pyramids” is a force to be reckoned with. And “Forrest Gump” though it seems tossed off at first, is exactly the kind of personalized, goofy song that made us fall in love with Ocean on Nostalgia Ultra.
Ocean’s story is popular right now, and as a young, black man of ambiguous sexuality, he makes for a good pawn in the game of competing think-pieces. Because people have so much to say about Ocean, acknowledging any problems with Channel Orange becomes a distraction, disrupting the clarity of all the larger points being made. The album is being mythologized, its faults sanded over, in order to bolster arguments that hold Ocean up as a prime mover behind a new more intimate kind of R&B, or as an example of a more tolerant hip-hop culture, or [insert-Frank-Ocean-related-sea-change-story-here}. These are convenient narratives. But when it’s supposed to be our job to thoroughly review an album it’s somewhat lazy and somewhat dishonest to pretend that Channel Orange is perfect. And if we’re taking Ocean as our example, it would serve us well to be as honest as he is.