Frank Ocean: the naturalness of his vocation

Signaling renunciation of faith with church organ and gospel fervor, Frank Ocean delivers his most thrilling performance to date on “Bad Religion.” He sits in a cab coaxing the driver with a few words in the fellow’s own language, drawn from his own religion. As distant hand claps and obtrusive strings threaten, Ocean breaks free: “If it brings me to my knees, it’s a bad religion.” Unrequited love—for God, for another man, for a talent that’s renumerative in the obvious ways but has brought small comfort. It reminds me of what Katherine Ann Porter wrote about Virginia Woolf: “She wasn’t even a heretic – she simply lived outside of dogmatic belief. She lived in the naturalness of her vocation.”

If nothing else on channel ORANGE is so fraught, credit Ocean’s devotion to the doodle, the lapidary gesture that eschews the “I” for “she.” Or “he.” The most fascinating songs might be “Super Rich Kids,” a member of what I’ll call the genealogy of privilege, a taxonomy that crisscrosses rock as much as R&B and rap (think Steely Dan’s “Showbiz Kids,” the Eagles’ “The Long Run,” Bryan Ferry’s “Can’t Let Go,” and Tupac’s greatest moments). In the former, an electric piano nods towards the decadent seventies of Bel Air, where you can do whatever you like, whatever feels good; in the latter, a piano vamp that keeps threatening to turn into “Bennie and the Jets” heightens the tension in a sketch about a character whose back is washed three times a day by an available female (“The shower head is amazing!” he avers). But confusing subject and object is Ocean’s métier. Autobiography, fiction, and reportage intermingle. When he wants to sound detached he talk-sings. For the switch to first-person point of view his voice jumps a couple of octaves. Odd Futures mate Earl Sweatshirt contributes deadpan commentary. Too many white lines and too may joyrides in Daddy’s Jaguar—if it’s not the side effects of the cocaine, Ocean’s still unconvinced it’s love.

That’s three songs. Another mumbly one called “Lost” rides a slinky guitar groove as potent as the title track of Usher’s Looking 4 Myself. The organ, as in “Bad Religion” deployed to portend a pained narrative, makes another appearance in the excellent “Monk.” And “Thinkin’ ‘Bout You” sounds better now than it did last year. But there’s no getting past “Pyramids,” a vast iceberg tacky because Ocean intends it as a statement — here a demonstration of the elasticity of modern R&B when it takes Maze + Frank Beverly and Maurice White’s barmier concepts as forebears — despite Ocean not being the sort of person who makes statements (that’s what made some of the commentary about his admissions a couple weeks ago so maddening). In addition, he may have found new subtleties as a singer but on occasion he doesn’t concentrate on the song at hand so that what looks promising on the page and sounds impressive in the brain isn’t cohering to your ear.

But as a fan I worry about Ocean’s head. A professional songwriter with genius aspirations would succumb to the puzzling bathos of “Forrest Gump.” That’s channel ORANGE: a puzzle, an intermittent beauty. Also, his first studio album. We should bear this mind when lauding this repository of good intentions.

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