[caption id="attachment_46150" align="aligncenter" width="640" caption="Photo courtesy of Frank Ocean/Facebook."][/caption]
Frank Ocean's bisexual. Tyler knew. Odd Future needs approximately zero more words written about them and homophobia. The world needs approximately zero more words by straight people about how to come out. It’s not a publicity stunt when there was already publicity. Psychoanalyzing pronouns is pointless. Psychoanalyzing old lyrics is more pointless. Psychoanalyzing demos written for other people is spectacularly pointless.
There, that’s the refutation to every extra-musical argument made in recent weeks about Frank Ocean and not Channel Orange. The album was already going to be big, but context has already rendered it classic. Today, Pitchfork gave it a 9.5, astounding for what’s essentially a debut. Nor is Channel Orange’s hype restricted to Internet or critical bubbles; Billboard’s projecting more than 100K album sales, which is impressive for a record with no physical release, no current or former record heats, almost no traditional promotion and one that Ocean made it really easy to stream for free.
"Frank Ocean’s career is going to plateau, if it’s going to be praised this much on the strength of one uneven album."
Or take Ocean’s letter, almost universally praised for its prose; Pitchfork’s Ryan Dombal called it “stunningly written.” But it’s wasn’t. It’s stunningly candid, yes, but not stunningly written; nothing about the writing transcends workmanlike. That’s entirely fine for a public statement -- how Ocean tells his life story is his business, and criticizing the writing isn’t just missing the point entirely but inventing a couple new points just to miss them. It’s less fine when his songwriting tends toward, as critic Alex Macpherson put it, “simplistic masquerading as disarmingly direct.”
That’s going to happen with everything here. Ocean’s voice, uneven as well, hasn’t improved much. For every stunning moment, like his buoyant falsetto on “Thinking About You” or conversational sarcasm afterward, there’s two more uninspired stretches -- like the rest of “Thinking About You,” where every other line sounds like the guide vocals for Bridget Kelly that they were. The lyrics are usually fine and often better than fine, but you can just see how people are going to make too much out of, say, Ocean’s use of California slang he’s immersed in or the songwriting techniques he’s studied. Ocean writes three sorts of songs. There are terminally cool chill-outs like “Sweet Life,” which do their jobs. There are the ballads, but for every touching moment is one as affectless as a Thought Catalog article. Then there are his ambitious ones, the ones that have already gotten this album called genius. They often fall flat. The “taxi driver... can we outrun the demons?” framing device on “Bad Religion” was genuinely impressive the first time Ocean tried it, on “Swim Good.” “Forrest Gump”’s premise renders it fan fiction, and anyone compared so often to Gump in a relationship would have grounds for dumping. There is “Pyramids,” 10 minutes long and gorgeous-sounding, but it tells the same story about prostitution that musicians and writers have told for years, and that story about prostitution almost involves time travel. (Time-traveling Egyptian lovers, by the way? Disney did it.) But what seemed epic or impressive as a lead single recedes into the background here. The pyramids at Giza, after all, stood out because they were plopped down in the middle of the desert.The pyramids of Giza also weren’t built in a day. If the pharaoh commissioning them had called them wonders of the world in the beginning, they’d just be unfinished plateaus of stone. Frank Ocean’s career is going to plateau, too, if it’s going to be praised this much on the strength of one uneven album. If we must revisit Frank’s old tracks for clues, the most instructive one is probably “Best Seller,” in which Ocean defends his love and/or art from the greedy critics and publishers who will presumably swoop in, “Trying to make it a best-seller.” “It’s precious, it’s private/ And it sure ain’t for profit,” Ocean sings, and if anything in his discography is going to be called prescient, it’s that. Ocean’s self-expression is undeniably precious. It’s also private. It sure ain’t for profit. It’s probably going to make Channel Orange a best-seller, which is fine and deserved. What it shouldn’t do is make it a premature classic. Ocean’s statement was revelatory, but his revelatory album is still in his future.