That phrase has been a pretty recurrent maxim in recent times for me, and easily applies to my music blogging (non)ambitions. Sometimes writing about music unleashes the best in my thought process, and at other times, it almost seems to disturb the process that music itself sets out to perform. That is, writing about music can kinda kill it, because the analytical process inherent in writing is kinda antithetical to the non-elucidated artfulness of music. Music is music, expressing itself by means musical.
Some music demands elucidation and unpacking though, and that’s the point of criticism. But what I’m sayin here is that sometimes the jams are so perfect, their clarity of meaning so sublime, that writing about them can be superfluous, or worse, tarnishes the musicalness of the music.
This is the danger of applying words to one of my favorite new musics, Frank Ocean’s channel ORANGE. I feel “no words” about this album, because it flawlessly says what it needs to say, by means of lyric, structure, and production. I ain’t sayin this album is perfect (gets off to a slow start, probably too many interludes, that song “Forrest Gump” sucks), but it does perfectly express its artistic goals as an album: it’s a balancing act of style and substance, disillusionment and hope, light and darkess.
The “speakers” of channel ORANGE are given voice in a variety of registers, inhabiting many bodies and attitudes. “Thinkin Bout You” has the bashful analogies of like some young John Donne sonnet (“got a fighter jet/I don’t get to fly it though” and the grizzled wisdom of a dying poet (“we’ll take this road till it changes from color to black and white”–[that shit makes me cry!]). On “Pink Matter” Frank lyrically performs a slow zoom out from the womb (pink matter) to the concept of self (gray matter) to the infinite, bewildering cosmos (aliens watching from the purple matter); the guest, Mr. Benjamin, gives his most emotionally honest verse maybe ever, aligning a present in which he cannot escape his heartbreak and a parallel universe where he and that-one-who-got-away are together.
In another deeper-than-rap balancing act, the universe of swag appears all over this album, but as a backdrop for personal disenchantment instead of the usual brags-about-riches. “Super Rich Kids” and “The Sweet Life” are a Salinger-style observation on the emotional emptiness of decadence and decadent people. The penthouse/Louboutin/Cuban cigar lifestyle so often inhabited by Rick Ross and the Watch the Throners is perversely twisted by Frank in the album showstopper “Pyramid.” I can’t help but picture the late/absurd Michael Jackson video for “Remember The Time,” every time I hear the first 5 minutes of this song, what with the dancing in a palace, the cheetahs, the jewels; the milieu is Egypt-cum-50’s Hollywood film, complete with a purple-eyed harlot as the object of the speaker’s desire, revealed completely before the camera, but remote. As the instrumentation transitions from its slinky, mysterious funk into a dreamier, slower mode, it’s like scales fall from our eyes, and all of a sudden the majestic Egypt is traded for a shitty motel, and Cleopatra is getting decked in stripper clothes before hitting the Strip. It’s a twist: Cleopatra is a stripper at a joint called “The Pyramid.” The unglamorous reality of hustling undoes the opulent fantasy of wealth.
We are taken to other places in channel ORANGE; sunny California, the back of a cab, a dream-like Sierra Leone, the crack house. The thing that allows Frank to balance his speakers’ personas and his settings is his miraculous, god-given gift of PHRASING. Often overlooked by people who don’t have any idea what it takes to sing, Ocean sounds like an old pro, with as much style as a crooner of yore, and charm for days like an R&Ber out to take your pants off. He knows how to sell a line with a droll laziness, earnest belting (one friend compared it to the somewhat embarrassing earnestness of Rufus Wainwright!), a flat directness, all in perfect tandem with the careful, cinematic scope and tone of each song.
So though the words I’ve chosen to use about channel ORANGE go too deep on some levels and don’t go there at all in other ways (have you noticed I haven’t mentioned his musical influences or, gasp, his sexuality???), I’m so deeply grateful that Frank pulled together this deeply personal, widely universal document of balance, of the minute and large, of desire and deprivation, of wealth and poverty. I hate to be all collegey and pullin out the dialectic, but the ole dialectic a constant of a lot of good art; it’s about navigating with our gray matter, not getting bludgeoned with big, bold strokes. I don’t have enough words for dudes like Frank, who paint with the subtleties of their craft and leave us with something as listenable and re-listenable as channel ORANGE.