It’s amazing that someone like Frank Ocean can exist in 2012. Just as the stunning re-emergence of D’Angelo has been hailed as the coolest thing to happen to popular music in months, the phenomenal ascent of the late addition to OFWGKTA doesn’t seem to make any logical sense. Ocean’s channel ORANGE, released officially this week but circulating round the Internet for a week before that, is full of songs that sound great in an anachronistic way. The arrangements are strictly musical. The hooks pay homage to a long tradition of strong black songwriters, from Gaye to Wonder and more recently, Maxwell. But perhaps most alarmingly, none of the melodies are lazy. To learn them, you have to listen to them properly, and as you listen to them, you realise how gifted this tearaway is. Did you think that the kid who used to pilfer songs from The Eagles and Coldplay to make mixtapes would grow into the Obama of hip-hop? Let me tell you something; I sure as hell didn’t.
‘Lost’ is a brilliant song not only because it is brilliant but also because it shines brighter when you perform the very simple trick of comparing it to the other stuff it competes with. As a rap chorus-singing, crossover R&B star, Ocean’s in the same camp as Chris Brown, Jason De Rulo, Ne-Yo and whoever else that factory puts out. With the exception of Yo (surely not his surname), none of them write their own material and all of them are chasing EDM with everything they can muster, blazing synths and four on the floor beats at you while they spin their lean bodies around and croak out digitially altered falsetto. Forgive me for sounding old, but the real appeal of Ocean for me is that his stuff sounds like it was played by a band. And he sounds like he actually sat down to pen the lyrics and then walked into a booth to sing it, not send it to some crack Swedish producer to tweak via the Internet. For some reason, ‘Lost’, with it’s airy woodwind counter-melody and groove-rock pulse really reminds me of Fleetwood Mac. It’s strong enough that it doesn’t even need to be cool for you to justify playing it, you just feel it in your bones. And once he starts singing, like, really singing, it’s impossible not to be sold. I tried; I didn’t listen to this record for a week after everyone else had and it was pointless. Hype can be justified, and this is a perfect example.
There are tearjerkers (‘Bad Religion’) and slow jams (‘Super Rich Kids’) that are more showy on this record, but for an endurance runner, you can’t fight ‘Lost’. Picking a simple bass line and growing an organic sound around it that includes an aching lead line, fluttering Nintendo samples, skanked guitars and shimmering Rhodes, tight drums and multi-tracked chorus vocals, it sticks around for much longer than the other material because it’s a well-executed pop song, which is pretty much kryptonite. For a guy with many cards in his deck, Ocean keeps most of them close. He only drops the bass line and the main hook at the chorus, deliberately building tension from foot-tapping to head-nodding and phasing in elements of his arsenal as quickly as he makes them disappear. He downplays his vocal range, too, setting it up in the first verse and really letting the ad-libs fly when he comes back around the second time. The full force of his emotion is palpable in the bridge, which leads out the song and pulls him away from the spotlight as he becomes part of the beat, not the leader of it. It’s performance, it’s composition, and it’s frankly quite beautiful. It’s a remarkable amount of restraint and a confident payoff that you wouldn’t peg a twenty-four year old having. And given that this is my last day as a twenty-four year old, I can think of no better tune which which to see off my youth.
PS: For those interested, my far better worded review of channel ORANGE can be read on The Vine.
Frank Ocean – ‘Lost’