There is a moment in “Pilot Jones,” an easy to miss track right around the halfway point on Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange, that provides some insight into what makes the album so compelling. After the opening verse and hook introduce the title character as a stoner/dealer with whom the song’s narrator has had a sexual relationship, the second verse finds Ocean singing, “Tonight she came stumblin' across my lawn/I just don't know why I keep on tryin' to keep a grown woman sober.” The moment resonates.
That resonance is the result of the moment’s understated empathy; having already established the relationships, both business and sexual, between the song’s speaker and Pilot Jones, the narrator’s comments on Jones’ drunkenness take on a surprising weight that is informed by a dual sense of sadness and urgency. In those simple lines about a drunk woman’s stumble and her interlocutor’s attempts to keep her sober, Ocean shows us two characters, both deeply flawed and desperate for connection, who have found each other and in some weird, not entirely healthy but still meaningful way, care about each other, as illustrated by this odd but sincere offer and proclamation made by the narrator: “But if I got a condo on a cloud/Then I guess you can stay at my place/I’mma get one/I need ya.”
While there are plenty of reasons to appreciate Channel Orange—its arrival as a fully formed, capital-a-Album, its mixture of classic R&B textures with a contemporary stylistic restlessness, and Ocean’s stunning vocal performances—what stands out most about Channel Orange is the clarity of Ocean’s vision, and the empathy that guides that vision.
When Ocean examines the lives of wealthy, privileged young people on “Sweet Life,” and “Super Rich Kids,” he critiques his subjects with an acute eye for detail. On “Sweet Life,” Ocean wryly asks, “Why see the world/When you’ve got the beach.” On “Super Rich Kids,” the titular characters are depicted as drinking, “Too many bottles of this wine we can’t pronounce,” (a line playfully delivered by Earl Sweatshirt). In the spirit of Bret Easton Ellis, both of these lyrics point toward the insularity and bored hedonism of the wealthy youths in question. But simply making fun of the kids isn’t Ocean’s style. These songs go out of their respective ways to illuminate a real sadness in their subjects’ lives: in “Sweet Life,” Ocean tells his subject that he or she is only “catching that breeze till you’re dead in the grave,” and on “Super Rich Kids,” Ocean’s subjects are surrounded by “fake friends,” their parent’s “ain’t around enough,” and they’re all left “searching for a real love.” Here, it is Ocean’s empathy for his characters, his willingness to see them as more than objects to critique, that elevates the songs from simple putdowns to elegant explorations of sadness and alienation. This same principle rings true throughout Channel Orange—Ocean’s characters are so well drawn that we ache for them, be it the struggling crack addict of “Crack Rock,” or the love struck dreamer of “Thinkin Bout You.”
Ocean’s knack for storytelling is further exhibited on the album’s centerpiece, “Pyramids,” as well as the seemingly personal “Bad Religion,” and “Pink Matter,” all three of which benefit from Ocean’s willingness to push against conventional R&B forms. The arrangement on “Pyramids” is a brief tour through club music tropes in its first half, during which Ocean sings about Cleopatra, before resolving into a smooth slow jam, sung from the perspective of an unemployed man supported by his stripper girlfriend. “Bad Religion” builds itself up with organ and strings as Ocean uses self-deprecation and earnest confessions to draw a comparison between religion and unrequited love. Despite the song’s grandiose signifiers—that organ, those strings, and shit, those handclaps—the arrangement still feels restrained, almost to the point of minimalism, by placing the emphasis squarely on Ocean’s decidedly not minimalistic, but impressively masterful vocal performance. And finally, on “Pink Matter,” restless guitar licks underscore Ocean’s philosophical, Dragonball-Z referencing reflections on sex, lust, and pleasure (“Sensei replied what is your woman/Is she just a container for the child/That soft pink matter/Cotton candy Majin Buu”) before the song bursts into an effectively lackadaisical guest turn from Andree 3000 and a discordant, psych-funk outro.
Already, Channel Orange’s sound has been extensively compared to classic works by the likes of Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Prince, and Outkast. It isn’t difficult to hear Ocean’s preoccupation with classic, timeless R&B sounds on Channel Orange—be it the electronic pianos and horns that give “Sweet Life” its golden-period Stevie Wonder vibe, the aching strings and distant chimes that make “Sierra Leone” feel like it could’ve been an outtake from Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, or the 80’s pop hook that propels “Lost.” These textures give Channel Orange a sense of familiarity without ever feeling overly familiar—as employed by Ocean, such textures work more as signifiers of the genre’s past than homage or pastiche, meaning that, despite the album’s “classic” feel, it also always feels utterly of its moment, never too “retro,” or too much like a throwback.
That being said, these specific textures are fleeting, leaving me to wonder if the real reason we can’t help but compare Channel Orange to its predecessors has less to do with Ocean’s sound and more to do with his writing. The raw humanity that guides Ocean’s songwriting is not dissimilar from Wonder’s writing for Songs of the Key of Life, Gaye’s writing and collaborations for What’s Going On, Prince’s for Sign ‘O’ the Times, or Outkast’sfor Stankonia. While this is certainly a big claim to make about the young Mr. Ocean’s work, his clear-eyed, full-hearted approach to characterization and story feels so strongly related to those albums that I don’t feel at all uneasy about making those comparisons.
There is already a great deal of hype surrounding Channel Orange, and already some resistance to that hype. Even some listeners who enjoy the album don’t quite “get” what all that hype is about, exactly. The truth is, though artists are still making plenty of good-to-great R&B and pop albums, I can’t remember the last time the genre produced a full album of songs so richly textured and guided by a vision so humanely realized. Even accounting for the intro, interludes and outro, there is neither a wasted second on Channel Orange, nor a wasted opportunity. That being said, Channel Orange is bigger than mere craft—as a songwriter, Ocean is wise beyond his years. Simply put, Channel Orange is a breathtaking artistic statement. And while some of that has to do with Ocean’s nods to Wonder, Gaye, Prince, and Outkast, anyone can make a record that reminds us of those artist’s greatest moments, Ocean makes those moments his own—he enters, inhabits, and feels those moments, but perhaps most importantly, he makes us feel those moments in a way that only a handful of classics have ever managed to achieve.