Is the Frank Ocean coronation premature?

Is the Frank Ocean coronation premature?

Last week, Frank Ocean’s debut album Channel Orange topped The Village Voice’s prestigious “Pazz And Jop” critics poll, capping off a year in which Channel Orange was cited on numerous year-end best-of lists (including The A.V. Club’s), was nominated in multiple major Grammy categories, and sold more than 130,000 copies in its first week. Thanks to the raves that had greeted Frank Ocean’s 2011 mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra—coupled with Ocean’s association with the controversial hip-hop collective Odd Future, and his pre-release coming-out as bisexual—Channel Orange was highly anticipated when it was released last July, and by nearly every measure, it’s satisfied that hype.

But is that hype beneficial, long-term?

Full disclosure: I think Channel Orange is a good album, but I don’t think it’s a great one. It didn’t make my Top 15 albums list of 2012, nor did any song from it make my “Top 40 songs from albums not on my Top 15” list. I spent much of last year trying to love Channel Orange, but the record never took hold. I’m a fan of vintage pop and R&B, and generally like hearing people work within the traditions of the old while courting the cutting-edge, as Frank Ocean does. But while several songs from Channel Orange hit that sweet spot for me—in particular “Sweet Life,” which best exemplifies Ocean’s gift for wistful scene-setting—too much of the album sounds sketchy to me. I don’t think Ocean is a strong vocalist, and I think many of his observations about wealth, sex, and drugs are thuddingly obvious, however well-written. (“Super Rich Kids,” for example, has one of the best backing tracks on Channel Orange and some impressively descriptive lyrics, but all in service of an “our young aristocrats are decadent assholes” message that never deepens, even with the inevitable “crash” of its last verse.)

This article is in no way intended to be a “takedown” of Frank Ocean. I’m glad so many people love Channel Orange. I don’t think they shouldn’t, and I don’t doubt the sincerity of Ocean’s fans. But the near-universal praise for Channel Orange worries me on two fronts:

  1. It’s symptomatic of music critics’ affection for the incomplete. I want to tread lightly here, because some of my best friends are music critics, and it’s something I still dabble in myself. But I know from firsthand experience that it’s in the critic’s nature to praise potential and distrust the accomplished. The unassailably good is tough to write about without sounding like a PR flack, or a joiner. And because critics spend a lot of time sorting through slickly undistinguished work, sometimes the disjointed has a more immediate appeal, just because it stands out. But speaking as someone who now approaches music primarily as a consumer, I’m increasingly dismayed by how many acclaimed rock and pop albums contain a few decent melodic ideas that have gone unfinished in the name of sounding more raw. As someone who relies on music critics to point me toward records I might like, I feel ill-served. 
  2. It may give Frank Ocean the wrong idea. I think Ocean’s talented, and there’s nothing wrong with him making minor, sketchy albums on his way to something greater. But already with Channel Orange, there’s a sense of Ocean reacting to the spotlight that shone on him after Nostalgia, Ultra did so well. And that “making a statement” aspect of Channel Orange—the feeling of build-up embedded in the structure of the album itself, with its intros, interludes, and vamps—runs counter to the songs’ relative smallness. Similarly, the Wikipedia entries for both Nostalgia, Ultra and Channel Orange are massive affairs, running more than 5000 words each, or about the same length as the entry for The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. That isn’t Ocean’s fault, of course. But it suggests a level of fan interest way out of proportion to the album’s significance. Some things aren’t meant to be this monumental.

Here’s a semi-off-topic case-in-point: I recently watched The Sessions, the movie adaptation of the late Mark O’Brien’s article about seeing a sexual surrogate. I’d missed the film at Sundance last year, where it was praised to the skies; and I’d missed it again at the Toronto International Film Festival, where my fellow critics seemed determined to let the air out of the The Sessions balloon. By the time I caught up with it, I was expecting a mediocre middlebrow melodrama, and was surprised by how much I ended up liking the movie. The Sessions is an actors’ showcase, but writer-director Ben Lewin does deal sensitively with human need, and the weaknesses of the body. The Sessions did fairly well at the box office for a low-budget indie, and Helen Hunt was deservedly nominated for an Oscar as the surrogate, but I still think the festival gauntlet—coupled with the year-end awards push—did The Sessions a disservice. It’s a modest movie best met with modest expectations.

Along those same lines, the hubbub over Channel Orange reminds me of something a casual acquaintance once told me when I mentioned The Clash to him. “I hate London Calling,” he said. “Everyone talks like it’s the greatest album of all time, but it’s just okay.” Leaving aside how wrong he is about London Calling, he was never able to connect the dots for me about how thinking an album is less-than-great is equivalent to “hating” it. But that happens a lot when something is hailed as “the best.” Those who feel left out in the cold start to get resentful. In fact, I have several friends who don’t really keep up with music until the year-end lists come around, when they finally check out what the critics are raving about; and one of those chums cornered me the other day to confess that he didn’t get Frank Ocean. What could I do? I sympathized. (I don’t think he or I are wholly alone here, either. Dean Of Rock Critics Robert Christgau gave Channel Orange an “A-,” yet in his year-in-review essay he admits that the album barely made his Top 40 list, and says he “can’t claim great personal excitement” about it.) 

I also suggested that my friend check out Lee Fields & The Expressions. I hesitate to bring up the “This >>>> That” construction that’s so popular on Twitter, but throughout 2012, I kept wishing that Fields’ Faithful Man were getting even a 10th as much attention as Channel Orange. Fields is an R&B veteran, and his album is decidedly old-school, in that it could be played back-to-back with James Brown, Isaac Hayes, Bobby Womack, and Marvin Gaye without anyone finding the transition jarring. I understand that elevating Fields at the expense of Ocean may seem reactionary, because one man is stuck in the past while the other is trying to redefine the sound of today; and in theory, the latter is more valuable. There’s nothing about Fields that screams “2012,” I admit. But Fields can sing rings around Ocean, and his songs are better-constructed.

It could be that I’m dead wrong about Frank Ocean, and that his next album will be so impressive that I’ll retroactively come to like Nostalgia, Ultra and Channel Orange more. That wouldn’t be out-of-character. I respect longevity in popular culture, and have a history of jumping on bandwagons right around the time that other people are jumping off. I once wrote a short essay about that. I also wrote a piece last year about the bad habit of stubbornly ideological rock critics missing the innate qualities of the music they’re panning—with Devo as my main example. So that’s another reason why I’m not trashing Frank Ocean here. I’m clinging to a dinghy floating just outside the boat, in case I decide to climb in later.

But I know that hype can be a self-sustaining whirlwind, leading people to feel that there are some albums that they have to hear, or movies or TV shows they have to see. In fact, that’s part of the fun of being engaged with popular culture—sharing in the zeitgeist, and feeling a part of something larger, that decades hence will still define this era. Is Channel Orange that album? An overwhelming number of the people who make those calls seem to think so. Consider me their loyal opposition.