Who Knew R&B Had Soul?
It’s been nearly three months since Frank Ocean’s debut album Channel Orange was released and I find myself going back to it over and over again. In fact, Channel Orange is well on its way to finding a berth on my best albums’ list of the year. It’s not as if I’m the biggest fan of R&B – indeed, the current crop of R&B stars such as Usher, Chris Brown, Mariah Carey and Beyonce, don’t do it for me. In theory, contemporary R&B is an amalgam of R&B (of course) and funk and soul and hip-hop, but much of today’s R&B music, with its mandatory pounding beats and formulaic dance-friendliness really is like a substitute for erstwhile disco music. The music is often repetitive and clichéd and the lyrics unmemorable – not my cup of beverage whatever that might be.
Frank Ocean is classified as a contemporary R&B artist. I’ve also learnt that he’s been a ghost-writer of songs for Justin Bieber, John Legend and Brandy, artists who are not on my A-list. Or, for that matter, on any of my lists! Had I known about this Bieber, Legend or Brandy connection before I’d picked up Channel Orange, I probably wouldn’t have done that, i.e. attempted to listen to his stuff. But I’m glad I did. Channel Orange is not predictable or formulaic as other contemporary R&B albums. Its songs and tunes are unconventional. There’s psychedelic rock, funk, jazz and soul and more but all of it in unexpected twists and bursts. But best of all, there are the lyrics. There are dark, unsavoury characters, dialogues from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, guest appearances by artists such as John Mayer and more.
Ocean, originally from New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina destroyed his studio and he relocated to Los Angeles, breaks the stereotype of contemporary R&B and, although I am sure you can dance to Channel Orange, makes his debut album a more cerebral piece of work than most of what I’ve recently heard in the genre. In Pyramids, he sings about a girlfriend in the avatar of Cleopatra who is dressing up in slinky clothes, make-up and six-inch high heels to go and work in a strip club; Crack Rock is about a crack addict black sheep in the family; in Super Rich Kids he sings about wealthy African American youngsters in southern California in what is the Black equivalent of Beverly Hills; and in Bad Religion, he is having a conversation about religion and love with a taxi driver.
Besides Mayer, there are others who make an appearance on Channel Orange – rappers André 3000 and Earl Sweatshirt, the latter a co-member with Ocean in the alternative hip-hop ensemble Odd Future. Ocean has deep roots in hip-hop and yet, a few weeks before his album dropped, he created quite a stir in the world of rap and hip-hop by publishing a letter online where he outed himself as a bisexual, talking for the first time about his first love, a man. In Channel Orange too, there are references that can be interpreted to indicate his bisexuality.
Why this became such a big deal is because by and large the R&B and hip-hop community has traditionally been conservative when it comes to sexuality – just listen to hip-hop lyrics and you will get the drift. In fact, Ocean’s associated act, Odd Future, has songs that could even be interpreted to be homophobic. Yet, surprisingly, the reaction to his revelations have largely been positive or, at least, not negative. But coming as they did, so close to the launch of the album, they distracted attention from the actual songs on Channel Orange, although I do think they served to whip up some hype about Ocean. Channel Orange doesn’t need extra props to get more attention. The album is quite brilliant even sans the controversy that Ocean’s statements about his love life may have created. I find myself reaching out for Channel Orange when I’m in various kinds of moods – happy, angry, a bit sad or exhausted or whatever – and it always seems to have the elixir to lift up your spirits regardless of the circumstances.
After a good five or six listens to the album, I turned to another of Ocean’s albums, a mix–tape that he’d self–released for free last year. It’s called Nostalgia, Ultra and has songs that sample several well-known tracks – by Coldplay, by Radiohead, by MGMT and, even the Eagles’ famous Hotel California. Ocean’s mixes are playful and witty, his lyrics are laced with hip-hop colloquialism and yet are thoughtful and his attitude refreshing. In a way, I think, Frank Ocean can make a difference to the genre he’s classified in – contemporary R&B, which otherwise has become boringly jaded and overly commercial.
Brooklyn’s indie rockers, Grizzly Bear, have a unique sound that uses instruments that range from the traditional (banjos, guitars) to the electronic (synths, omnichords, keyboards). I’d heard two of their albums, Yellow House (2006) and Veckatimest (2009) before Shields (2012) dropped, last week. Their music is characterised by vocal harmonies and all the albums I’ve heard are super. Shields did several rounds on my playlist last week. And will probably do a couple more before I switch to something else.