"What good is a jewel that ain't still precious?" Since Odd Future crooner Frank Ocean arrived on the scene with last year's resplendent Nostalgia, Ultra, his language has been that of loss. Ocean's vocabulary paints pictures of lost youth, lost love, lost time, and lost innocence. The precious hazy days of "Strawberry Swing," are razed by a rude alarm clock. On "American Wedding," Ocean's nubile bride is lost to the summer in a classic case of self-termed "American heartbreak." And Ocean loses himself in a den of drugs and Kubrickian fantasies in the nightmarish "Novacane." Suffice to say, Ocean's "losing lexicon" is communicated with ineffable ease, and nowhere is that language better broadcast than on Channel Orange.
When the frantic channel surfing of "Start," fades into the sorrowful strings of the now familiar "Thinkin' 'Bout You," we are in Ocean's world. Musically "Thinkin' 'Bout You," is dominated by fluttering drum snaps, with Ocean wondering if he's the only one in the relationship concerned with forever. "Do you not think so far ahead?" is the only question Ocean can muster in his fragile falsetto.
This sort of tortured self-awareness is broken up by tracks like "Sweet Life," where Ocean lovingly lambastes the twee-set. "You've had a landscaper and a housekeeper since you were born, the sunshine always kept you warm," Ocean jabs in the soaring chorus. Here the warm sun and the crashing waves are a far-cry from the tumult Ocean is used to seeing. For all the scrutiny, Ocean is entranced by this plastic paradise.
Ocean tastes the sweet nectar of success on "Super Rich Kids." Backed by piano plinks he plays the titular role to a tee, armed to the teeth with "bottles of wine," he can't pronounce and scores of "fake friends." In the scenic first verse, Ocean blends life's minutiae with the "monumental." One minute he's up on the roof taking in his domain and the next he's found kicking his feet up, "pointing the clicker at the tube." The silver spoon is bend beyond repair as Earl Sweatshirt stops by on the second verse to tamper the "Good Times." O.F.'s superior spitter delivers a dazzling verse, littered with mind-boggling assonance and alliteration that sees latchkeyed kids taking out their tempers on daddy's Jag. It's the first crack in the mirror that shatters with Ocean's admission that he's stuck "searchin' for a real love." Even with all his silver and gold, Ocean can never buy that which he longs for the most.
The blissful domesticity of "Rich Kids" is dashed on "Pilot Jones," Ocean quipping "we once had things in common, but now all we share is the refrigerator." Even as Ocean and his love battle for fridge space, he can be found flying high on the drug that is her love. Two songs later, Ocean is free-falling back to Earth as he poses that pivotal question of "what good is a jewel that ain't still precious?"
The question has the same pained rhetorical-nature to it as last year's "what's a God to a non-believer who don't believe in anything?" Ocean knows that this jewel has become a diamond in an inescapable rough and will never again be pristine. Stuttering synths and warped bass breaks guide Ocean as he journeys to the heart of Ancient Egypt to tame the mighty Cleopatra. The sweltering air of the song suggests this is a fool's task and Ocean finds his queen "laying down with Samson." Once the "Jewel of Africa," succumbs to the serpent, the song is bathed in a propulsive dance beat that segues into a quiet storm of keyboards as we fast-forward to the desert of Las Vegas. Here Cleopatra is envisioned as a lady of the night and Ocean her lovelorn pimp that's lost control. "Can we make love before you go," is the only question he can muster as his love steals off into the night. Her love now comes equipped with a price-tag, one that he can never pay.
That utter decimation is firmly felt on "Bad Religion," where Ocean is on the losing side of unrequited love. With a minor-key organ as his only companion, he slides into the backseat of a taxi cab and begs the driver to "out run the demons." As Ocean is buried under the weight of his situation, he comes to the sobering realization that "this unrequited love, is nothing but a one-man cult." To Ocean unrequited love is the ultimate "bad religion," a theology where reciprocity is in short supply, a self-destructive habit akin to drinking cyanide "from a styrofoam cup." When he devours the last of his drink, he's in a state of shock, repeating the melancholic mantra "it's a bad religion, to be in love with someone who could never love you."
Earlier this month when Ocean published his letter to a lost love, he was heralded for his bravery and profound lyricism. Scorned by a man who could never love him, Ocean was left standing alone with his heart in his hands. For three summers, Ocean struggled to keep the rhythm of "the dance," as he drove cross-country trying to escape the pain any way possible. "I wrote to keep myself busy and sane. I wanted to create worlds that were rosier than mine. I tried to channel overwhelming emotions." Channel Orange is the showcase for those "overwhelming emotions," a springboard for all of Ocean's anger, frustration, and confusion. "I feel like a free man," he writes near the end of that sterling letter. For all of the pain and peril this album is ultimately about Ocean's redemption, documenting his escape from life's wilderness. With Channel Orange as his guide, Ocean is no longer lost.