Week Four: Channel Orange

It is perhaps a sign that I am now at least in the foothills of middle age (I turn 40 next year) that, while his biggest single might have had more than a hundred and fifty million plays on Spotify, and Channel Orange was the Guardian’s album of the year in 2012, I’m not entirely sure I’d ever heard of Frank Ocean before. I only have mental space for a certain number of musical Franks, and he is neither Sinatra nor Sidebottom. When I saw the name at the top of the Mookbarks article, I had confused him for a moment with public school indie songsmith, Frank Turner whom I’d vaguely remembered had written some not-terribly-inspiring song called Tapedeck Heart.

Now R&B and hip-hop are two of what I suspect this exercise will come to reveal are the many blind-spots in my musical knowledge. I think this goes back to a combination of the awful ersatz-R&B that was the staple of Radio 1 in the late 1990s when I spent several summers working on factory production lines or in bars and restaurants where this was piped through the PA (think Backstreet Boys or n-Sync, Craig David, R Kelly and many others whose names have long since escaped my mind) and the fact that some years before that, my brother and I would go round to the neighbours because they had a hi-spec PC and we would play long games of Civilisation while listening to records. And seemingly in unison, the other three became obsessed by the ‘gangsta rap’ of Dr Dre, Snoop Dogg and Warren G. And I just didn’t get it… To steal a line from popular song, it said nothing to me about my life

My younger self would probably have prefaced this piece with a grumble about how the term ‘R&B’ had been misappropriated and that Chuck Berry et al would be rolling in their graves. But there’s enough snark on the internet already, and really, what’s the problem if the same word is used to describe two quite different musical genres? It is at least sort of possible to trace a very crooked line from 50s rhythm and blues, through funk, disco and soul music, to modern R&B. Whereas as far as I can tell, nothing links the garage rock of The Stooges or MC5 with garage house music. Anyway, to the album itself….

It doesn’t begin promisingly. Thinking ‘Bout You has the vocal delivery and synth drum sound that brings back memories of exactly the kind of music I mentioned above. It’s not fair. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with either falsetto vocals or mid-tempo electronic drum patterns. But I just don’t like it. There follow a series of tracks about the lives of idle rich kids in sunny California. There’s a bit of musical variety coming in, as Sweet Life and Rich Kids have more than a hint of Stevie Wonder about them – a touch of old school soul. And lyrically, it’s refreshing to hear R&B music that comments on, rather than just bragging about, enormous wealth.

All the same, I’m not really finding anything to draw me in. It’s polite, pleasant background music, but nothing more, and if I weren’t doing this as a project, I expect might have abandoned the album at about this point.

Which would have been a shame, because about half way through, it suddenly starts to get a lot more interesting. Pilot Jones and Crack Rock have the memorable melodies that are, to my ears at least, missing from the opening songs, but it is with the 9 minute Pyramids, a surreal re-imagining of Cleopatra as a dancer in some sleazy nightspot of that name, that I start to get it. It’s a real musical melting pot of a song, and at the risk of sounding like a ridiculous musical Jilly Goulden, I detect strong traces of Prince, a touch of Giorgio Moroder, echoes of Kraftwerk, and just a sniff of 70s prog rock. It was a New Year’s resolution of mine (of sorts) to re-string the guitars which take up space in my flat and start playing them again and I found myself practising scales using Pyramids (and Bad Religion) as a backing track. Suffice to say I didn’t come up with anything close to the guitar solo that kicks in at 8 minutes 50.

Its followed by Lost. Another highlight (at least if one doesn’t listen too closely to the lyrics in the verses, I mean, “Double D/ Big full breast on my baby (yo we goin’ to Florida)/ Triple weight/ Couldn’t weigh the love I’ve got for the girl” really?) and a still more overt nod in the direction of Prince and for the first time, I find myself appreciating the drum sound on this record. If I were an A&R man, then this, rather than Thinking ‘Bout You would have been the first single.

Bad Religion takes what is an old pop soul staple, the conflict between lust and god, and does something a bit different with it – comparing unrequited love to “a cult of one” while Pink Matter is just another good tune, and I have to say I find Andre 3000’s rapping more to my taste than Earl Sweatshirt’s rather didactic efforts on Super Rich Kids.

Only at the end, with the rather woeful Forrest Gump does he drop the ball again. A song that the skip-button was invented for (and an illustration of why the other Frank is just wrong to be nostalgic about cassettes). I doubt this is going to be a record I’m going to keep going back to – for all that others have talked about how this is an intensely emotional, moving record, I found that I could appreciate it only on a fairly technical level – I admired it more than I loved it.

Highlights: Pyramids, Lost, Bad Religion, Pink Matter

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