There's a lot of heavy, heavy talk about this record (with many going so far as to already deem it a 'classic'), and it's quite understandable why. Certainly, channel ORANGE is the kind of debut (Er, second record? Do mixtapes count? I'm so old...) whose oozing confidence and broad vision demands attention and respect. And not only is its creator, Frank Ocean, a member of one of the most acclaimed and notorious hip hop crews out there (L.A.'s Odd Future), but he's also just coming off the heels of releasing 'the Text Edit document heard round the world'—the document, also included in the notes to channel ORANGE, is about as eloquent a coming out of a gay public figure as you're likely to see these days. Anyway, cynical or not, when you add up the factors involved, there's a lot of precedent for this type of blogger and press salivation. We are all possessed of an innate need for performers like Ocean to not only be good, but great. And not just great, but a revelation.
It should come as no surprise that channel ORANGE isn't perfect. Even the most ardent backer is going to come down from cloud nine eventually and realize that tracks like "Pilot Jones," "Crack Rock," and "Monks"—while full of sonic variation—add little more than running time to an hour-long record. Or that, while impressive in scope, "Pyramids" isn't nearly as riveting as its lengthy ambition sets it up to be. But in the end, that's all just fine. Because what the album is is something far more interesting than perfect: it's flawed, but flawed in a way that reveals true daring. It is the work of an artist with talent to burn and the guts to make choices that would bury lesser singers and songwriters.
And make no mistake, Ocean is great at both. His falsetto performance on "Thinkin Bout You" is a stunner; a devastating opening salvo of romantic ache that threatens to leave the rest of the album in its shadow. And how does the writer in him follow it up? Not with a barrage of hits, but by instead offering a teasing 40-second ice cream taster-spoon of vintage Stevie Wonder called "Fertilizer" and the understated introspection of "Sierra Leone." Neither track seems in any way eager to back up the promise of "Thinkin Bout You," rather keeping the listener at a savvy distance. Even when he does break out the big guns again on "Sweet Life," it takes until well over a minute of that song's casually strutting verse before you run into one of the bigger choruses of the summer. After such a cool setup, you never see Ocean's brilliance coming.
Of course, by the time he drops massively fun "Super Rich Kids" on you two tracks later, the effect becomes love at first sight. This, I think, is the moment when many reviewers' "It's a classic!" alarm bells begin to ring. Fair enough: Ocean's sharply assured observations of the rich and shameless are both hilariously voyeuristic and emotionally compelling. Rarely does an artist walk that line as well as he does in the first third of this record. That he can't quite sustain this standard throughout, then, isn't all that shocking—but neither is the fact that so many want to convince themselves that he does.
To be sure, there are some incredible moments yet to come. "Bad Religion" puts more beauty, grief, and power into under three minutes than you'd think possible. "Pink Matter" manages to be a quite resonant meditation on genders despite its occasionally awkward metaphors, and features a gloriously messed-up funk/psych breakdown at its conclusion. But above all, it's the ways that moments of such genius mingle with the not-quite-there-yet on channel ORANGE that make it special. Like the rather tired channel-surfing trope that loosely connects the transitions between songs, there's bound to be some filler in there. But Ocean's mental receiver is locked into some inspired transmissions nonetheless. He's restless, gifted, and brave. He aspires. And if he continues to make records with this sort of an eye for variety and risk-taking, one day he WILL indeed make us a classic.