Spin: It's a fool's game to predict an artist's longevity off their first album, even if you think that first album is genius and was preceded by a jams-rich catalogue. But it would also be disingenuous not call it like we feel it: Frank Ocean has emerged as one of American music's greats, potentially of all time. Not simply a pop star or a sizzling phenom or a young flash on a stylist's resume, though he still blazed through his first-week Billboard charts with the ferocity of Usher and Chris Brown. Frank Ocean is too real.
Nostalgia, Ultra, 2011's debut full-length, made us a promise and we fell for the album with the passion and faith of converts, enveloping ourselves in his contemplative sweetness, the satin tenor of his voice. This year's channel ORANGE delivered on that promise, showing the extremes of his depth, and exactly how wide open he truly was. It's the album of a man who believes in his own music, flaws and all. He believes in his vision. He even put "Forrest Gump" on there! The song, a wistful ode written from the perspective of Forrest's girl Jenny in the cornball '94 film, boasts a grinning, sing-song simplicity, stretched out bald with cheesy sentiment and no self-consciousness. It's the kind of innocence you wanna ride with.
"Mango, peaches, and lime... Why see the world when you got the beach?" Emotion aside, channel ORANGE is Frank Ocean's version of Philip Roth's American Pastoral in its vivid depictions of cultural turmoil, a sociological diagnostic in the spirit of Joan Didion's White Album. (At a channel ORANGE listening session, I even suggested that he seek out the latter, after feeling the parallels between their incisive, love/hate detail for humanity and California.) In retrospect, I hope he never got that book. His voice is his own and should stay that way, unflappable except for the intermittent apparitions of his heroes — Prince, Sam Cooke, and Stevie Wonder the most obvious, although his yen for channel-flipping sonic experimentation recalls Eno and his disciples too.
channel ORANGE captures a series of moments that converge to become a full panoramic snapshot of the hell going down in nihilistic kidland. "Too many joyrides in Daddy's Jaguar," he sings on "Super Rich Kids," the track (featuring Odd Future's Earl Sweatshirt) about Los Angeles' moneyed and disenfranchised trust-fund class. "Too many white lies and white lines." It's the consequence and cause, too. Put it with the premonitory "Crack Rock," the boom-bap thrum teasing out Ocean's thoughts about that "glass dick," or "Lost," a pop song about a drug don with just a shred of conscience left. Here, his point of view falls into crooked place, via fully formed stories of wayward souls fleshed out by an old one. Yeah, he's said he's got an old soul. Of course, he says that, infusing Buddhist wise-man imagery into his videos and lyrics. But then, what else could he be, sketching out these tracks while walking in every shoe and elevating his sanguine voice to preternatural relatability. This dude's barely 25 years old, a Scorpio, obviously. He captures generations.