I don’t listen to a lot of R&B. In fact I don’t listen to any of it, as far as I know, but I’ve been listening to Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange on repeat. iTunes lists him as a pop artist, but I don’t think that’s fair. I’m no expert on Black culture, I’m almost completely removed from it in any practical sense. I’d like to think that it’s a symptom of living in the Deep South, but it’s likely a symptom of cultural complacency. I was lucky to come across Ocean, it was the recommendation of a friend I hadn’t seen in a while. I don’t think I would have listened to him otherwise, because he’s so far removed from the artists I follow. Maybe that’s why Channel Orange feels like something new and electric and gorgeous.
Ocean is ambivalent, but not in the snide dissonance. “It’s like punk rock, but sweeter,” as Jesse Thorn put it. He’s sincere, which is something that’s starting to become a theme in my interests.
Ocean’s music is a paradox of pain and joy, everything is soulful. Is he singing about himself? Someone else? You? There’s an intimacy there, like he’s sharing a distance wrought from affluence.
It’s unexpected, engaging, contemporary. On the track Bad Religion, Ocean sings” Boy you need prayer. I guess it couldn’t hurt me. If it brings me to my knees, it’s a bad religion.” His voice is sharp and smooth and in control. When Ocean sings about unrequited love, it’s not that you know what he’s saying, it’s that you understand what he’s feeling.
From what little I know of Hip Hop and R&B, there seems to be a lot of pride, of one-upmanship, of bombast and cynicism. That’s not always bad, especially in art, but what’s special about Ocean is his strong acceptance of sincerity. He’s just himself, and his songs echo faults and insecurities. There are times when I think he might be singing about a man, others when I know he’s singing about a woman. That’s an intimacy that’s often left out of popular music, but for Frank Ocean, it’s a foundation.
Here’s a clip of Ocean opening a song with a cover of Fake Plastic Trees by Radiohead. I think it sums up what I’ve been saying. At least I hope it does.