Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

The Best Albums of 2012, Edition Seven: Frank Ocean

Channel Orange — Frank Ocean

Between Frank Ocean and The Weeknd (more on him later), this decade is shaping up to be a golden age resurgence of R&B. Last year’s mixtape from the OFWGKTA member was just a teaser of how smart Ocean writes his lyrics, and I immediately wanted more. His debut LP doesn’t disappoint.

The album kicks off with lead single “Thinkin Bout You”, which sets the tone and theme of the record: Ocean dislikes random romantic antics, yet he explores them; he ultimately wants a meal, but he’ll have some tapas in the meantime. It’s an introspective take on R&B which gives it an honesty and a relatable quality that is so attractive.

On “Sweet Life”, Ocean opens with the delightful lyric “the best song wasn’t the single, but you weren’t either”. There’s so much to get lost to in that line. “You’ve had a landscaper and a housekeeper since you were born,” he laments in the chorus. Again, an interesting take on the genre: he isn’t coming from money, but he aspires to that status.

There are a bunch of incredible tracks in the first half — “Sierra Leone”, “Pilot Jones”, and “Crack Rock” — but I’m going to skip to the jewel of the record, “Pyramids”. Who’s heard of a ten minute long R&B track before? (Okay, Prince’s “Purple Rain” is, like, nine minutes long.) It’s an opera of a song, with bluesy guitar parts (thanks to John Mayer) and jazzy saxophones nestled between club-ready synths and a heavy funk beat. There are a lot of ideas in the lyrics of this one track, but it’s largely built around the broken fantasy world of the relationship between pimp, prostitute, and “client”. It’s Los Angeles at two in the morning: miserable and mysterious, appalling or alluring (or both, depending on your particular leanings). This is undoubtably one of the best songs of the year.

Just when you’re brought into the deepest emotional depths of the album so far, Ocean hits back with the tropical “Lost”, and brief jazzy saunter of “White”, the latter with more fretwork from Mayer. But this album isn’t easy by any means, and listeners are reminded of this with the solemn “Bad Religion”. Much has been made of this song, owing to Ocean’s coming out earlier this year. But it’s powerful purely because of the simplicity and honesty of its lyrics, but because of the same, it’s not an easy song to listen to. But it’s worth it. Nobody tells stories through music like this any more.