IF CHRIS BROWN SERIOUSLY THINKS HE CAN TOUCH MY MAN AND NOT PAY FOR IT HE’S GOT ANOTHER THING COMING THAT’S FOR DAMN SURE.
Posts tagged Frank Ocean.
It was while I was away, working in New York, that Frank Ocean released his debut studio album Channel Orange, and my sense of bizarre marvel at all that differentiated Los Angeles from New York came into focus.
After spending a year in New York, I arrived home midday at LAX, collected my belongings from baggage claim, met my mom at the United terminal, hopped onto the 405, and marveled—mouth agape—at the sprawling blue. I suppose I’d naturally become accustomed to LA’s oceanic, cyan sky after growing up here all my life, but something about revisiting it this summer struck me. In High School I realized that I needed to experience something outside of LA, so I went to New York for college, eager to see how the other half of cosmopolitan society lives. I quickly learned that New York is, architecturally, a city defined by entrapment, enclosure and intrusion; skylines, the architectural detail of the mansard roofs, the Brooklyn Bridge—which cultivated a parallel sense of definition and containment in the way I viewed the world: I came to New York to do work, to be a student, to secure my future through a regimented and organized track. The feeling of enclosure I experienced when looking up at the sky and seeing more building than azure was supplemented by my motivation for going to the city in the first place: to finally focus on who I wanted to be, and how I’d get there, not to focus on anything I deemed extraneous.
There were few, if any moments my first year in New York at which I found myself marveling at the beauty of something non man-made; all sense of visual wonder was contingent upon the city’s physical landscape: the sight of downtown from the roof of my campus’ buildings, a view down Amsterdam of Harlem from the peak of Manhattan, the skyline as viewed from a rocky Brooklyn beach. And outside of the physical spectacle was the reality of my living arrangements in New York: the subway at rush-hour, sharing a cab with four co-workers from Penn Station to 110th street, sharing a bathroom with forty other residents on my dorm floor, etc.
I quickly became accustomed to seeing the world through a contained, physical lens, a familiarity immediately and repeatedly disrupted once I returned to LA, where I’ve done nothing but marvel at this city’s sense of grand, expanding space. When I returned, the streets were bigger; the city’s sprawling design was magnified, I could comfortably stretch my legs in the back of my friend’s SUV. All sense of business and rush was immediately supplanted by a languidness: time slowed down, the spatial landscape of my city, and the sky blanketing over it, seemed to have stretched almost tenfold; the sidewalks were empty, it felt like summer from sunrise to sunset, even afterwards. It was as if the city was in a constant exhale, completely devoid of tension, seemingly at peace with its own unique brand of leisure—one that feels, even more now than it did when it was my place of permanent residence—like a dream.
It was while I was away, working in New York, that Frank Ocean released his debut studio album Channel Orange, and my sense of bizarre marvel at all that differentiated Los Angeles from New York came into focus. After first giving Channel Orange a listen-through, I was initially perplexed by the universally effusive praise the album received by critics and casual music listeners alike, put-off by the album’s sparse arrangements and slow, almost indolent tempo. At first listen it felt as if whenever the album began to gain momentum it eschewed it for either a skit, or a down-tempo ballad—“there were so few hooks, I lamented.” It was enjoyable and pretty, but not at all as captivating or immersing as standard R&B/Pop fare, and a bit of a stray from the kind of musical stylings that catalyzed Ocean’s reputation like “Novacane” from Nostalgia/Ultra, or his single “Swim Good.” It wasn’t until my third or fourth listen to Channel Orange that I realized the album’s composition and structure is a reflection of Ocean’s exploration of the various inhibitors to love and intimacy: drug abuse, lack of parental support, lack of economic resources—many of the foundations of Los Angeles’ culture itself—and, perhaps most saliently, an unrequited love for someone of the same sex, and that this is portrayed through the album’s loose temporal structure. It became clear, quickly, that the brushy, ethereal quality of so many ofChannel Orange’s compositions were stylistic analogs to the abstract quality of love, and the emptiness experienced by losing love. What mesmerizes me so much about Channel Orange, is the way Ocean uses his compositions, lyrics, and manipulation of genre to express his personal exploration of separation, and his attempts to find serenity, closure and understanding in a city that isn’t genuine; the entertainment, image, and wealth driven capital of Los Angeles.
Ocean first gave us a sense of how he would explore these elements of love and intimacy in the “coming out” letter he posted on his tumblr. The post, just two paragraphs long, describes the nature of his affection for his presumedly straight male friend in sparse, poetic detail. The opening lines, “Whoever you are, wherever you are…I’m starting to think we’re a lot alike. Human beings spinning on blackness,” formulate a striking introduction to a confession (who is the subject?) as well as a taste of the artistic and emotional territory Ocean is about to delve into. His language and description of his love, and the way he’s come to understand it, is expressed in deeply abstract, almost fantastical, and poeticized language and narrative structure, yet is moored in a grounded genuineness that keeps his statements from appearing treacly or crudely romanticized. It takes us from a drive in his Nissan to Los Angeles after having to evacuate his home during Hurricane Katrina, to a metaphorical skydive and the edge cliff, to Ocean’s emotional nadir: crying at his love’s lack of reciprocity for his deep, consuming desire. That all of this is framed by the image of humans spinning on blackness is a hauntingly layered metaphor: that we are all dancing on blackness—absence—and that this blackness is swollen with grief and pain, the residues of loss, articulated through a highly stylized, abstracted, almost dream-like and fanciful narrative—and that this is what some may call life.
Ocean’s repeated lyrical emphasis on detachment, isolation, and emotional disconnect from himself, others, and the city of Los Angeles is the core of the album’s focus, and touches each corner of Channel Orange. We get that from the onset in the track “Start,” which begins in a fuzzy, a-melodic whir and then transmutes into what sounds like the start-up sound effects for a PlayStaytion2; the album begins in a dream we’re all-to familiar with. “Thinking ‘Bout You” begins with a triple-entendre—a lyrical device Frank employs with great precision: “A tornado flew around my room before you came / Excuse the mess it made, it usually doesn’t rain / In Southern California…” describes the literal messiness of his room, the Hurricane that forced him to evacuate to California to begin with, and the residual emotional turmoil from his experience of unrequited love, and is a very clear example of Ocean couching his feelings of detachment—from his home and his first love—under layers of subtext and poeticism.
Channel Orange finds Ocean traveling to territories as diverse as Miami, Amsterdam, Tokyo and Spain on the track “Lost,” to Sierra Leone, but repeatedly back to Los Angeles, where Ocean’s anguish over his emotional displacement seems its most stressed. On the single “Sweet Life,” Ocean constructs a vision of LA’s Ladera Heights—as he describes, and as it is, “the black Beverly Hills”—pitting the city’s “sweet life” against its underlying social decay, and framing it around him trying to come to terms with his previously alluded to rejection (“The best song wasn’t the single, but you weren’t either”), which he does by, “[swallowing] the pill/ keepin’ it surreal.” In “Sweet Life,” Ocean situates his handling of grief center to his critique of Ladera and Beverly Hill’s indulgent, excessive lifestyle, which, although sweet, is completely out of touch with reality. The lines “keepin’ it surreal, not sugar-free, my TV ain’t HD, that’s too real/ Grapevines, mango, peaches, and lime, a sweet life” is a deeply nuanced critique of Los Angeles culture in general, complicated by the city’s racial tension, and framed by his brief denial of his true emotions. The city’s splendor is revealed through a concealment of its true detail; our vision of Los Angeles, and love, is “sugared,” fabricated; grapevines, mango, peaches and lime seem like a sweet batch of fruit until you realize the latter is unpalatably acidic, and Ocean tacks in that subtle, unrecognized detail to subtly exemplify and drive his point home that the “sweet life” is a veneer shrouding a nastier, unpleasant reality. “The water” is “exactly what [he] wanted” but “the neighborhood is goin’ ape shit crazy,” exclaims Ocean before he breaks off into a wail at the end of the song, and this is true of the way he’s handling his lost relationship, and the way LA handles itself.
On “Super Rich Kids (feat. Earl Sweatshirt),” Frank Ocean more overtly critiques the vacuousness of indulgent, image-obsessed and over-privileged LA culture, again situating his desire for love at the center. As he describes it, that culture is one of excess that ultimately ends in corruption: “too many bottles of wine,” “too many bowls of that green,” “too many joy rides in daddy’s Jaguar,” “too many white lies and white lines.” This time, however, Ocean himself is a part of that privilege, most likely him commenting on his current residence in Beverly Hills, describing himself sitting on the roof of his penthouse. Still critical of excess in general it seems, he quickly undermines his own “good times”—“new car, new girl/new ice, new glass”—by sliding in JJ from the show Good Times’ classic line “Dynomite!”—hinting that this kind of lifestyle is bound to explode in front of him. This is supported through Earl, who embodies the prototype of the corruptive toll this kind of decadence has on adolescents through his own experiences with rehabilitation, and his verses which describe a culture of “xany-gnashing/caddy-smashing, bratty,” adderal addicted teenagers acting out against a culture that tries to buy their happiness. These kids are both institutionally and self-medicated, “latchkey,” and on the brink of collapse, and, as Earl’s last line smugly suggests, are treated as if they can’t erupt. This, as the “Dynomite!” sample and ticking-time-bomb sound that underscores the entire song foreshadow, ultimately does explode and erupt in front of them, and ends in Ocean’s destruction: him drunkenly plummeting down a sixty story building (“Sleeve rips off, I slip, I fall/ The market’s down like sixty stories/ and some don’t end the way they should”), a description of his literal drunken fall, a symbol of economic collapse, and a reminder that this “story” shouldn’t have ended the way it did (in addiction and death)—that this dark fantasy could have been corrected with some “real love,” something Frank Ocean had, but lost. The song’s slow, monotonous tempo, the deadpan delivery of Earl’s verses, and the soft echo reverberating behind all the lyrics, injects a breathy, ethereal quality to the song, making it feel like a dream as expansive as the the Pacific Ocean, or the LA sky, and equally as mesmerizing. The problem with LA, however, is that its expansiveness is founded upon untenable moors; the sweet sugar of a detached, superficial lifestyle crumbles against the hard realities of aging, heart-break, and death.
Ultimately, the way Frank Ocean encapsulates his manifold critiques, revelations, and challenges with love, privilege, decay and longing is rendered through Channel Orange’s use of space, and it’s this that in my mind distinguishes Orange as one of the most sophisticated pop/R&B albums in recent years. He takes us across 17 songs, to Egypt, Sierra Leone, and Asia, to an aimless voyage on “Pilot Jones”, and to rock-bottom. From smoking crack, lamenting his fake brother’s death on “Crack Rock,” to him bleating for a divine savior from his depravity on “Bad Religion,” away from his one-man cult, away from the “religion” that drove him to shame—and at the very end leaves us at a muffled distortion of sound—much like that at the beginning, and what sounds like Ocean walking through a door at home, setting his keys down on a table—seemingly nowhere, possibly anywhere. Unlike the Los Angeles sky, unlike Los Angeles itself, Ocean’s vast emotional and artistic landscape is suffused with a rare, complex sophistication and nuance that reveals its meaning not through where it takes us, but by how far its taken us. This, Ocean posits, is what we’re meant to do with life, in his case through music: to wade through the emotional gaps love and longing inflict on us, and to piece them together through art and stories. It’s this that has made my experience with Channel Orange feel breathtakingly grand and dense, and what’s left my time in LA feeling breathtakingly vast and intangible.
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