Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Channel Orange (Frank Ocean)/ Fantasea (Azealia Banks) (2012)

Coming Out

when did your name change from language to magic?’ (Madonna, ‘I’m Addicted’)

If you consume as much Twitter as I do then these last few weeks have engulfed you with a plethora of information on both Frank Ocean and Azealia Banks. If you’re not a music critic, into hip/hop, gay or all then you’d be forgiven for asking the one pertinent question prior to that time span: who the hell are Frank Ocean and Azealia Banks?

Ocean is a member of the notorious hip/hop group Odd Future while Banks’ claim to fame rests with a one-shot single released on Youtube that somehow managed to land her a record deal. It’s not as simplistic as that but both are young, black and gifted musicians. And ever since a poignant Tumblr letter written by Ocean to himself came to light, both are bisexual, still a novelty in hip/hop. Banks had already stated as much in interviews but with both releasing new-ish albums this month, it’s worth examining the one question left dangling in the air: are they worth the hype?

In short, the resounding answer is yes. Both artists are still climbing up the ranks as major players in hip/hop soul but with the tools available to them—mainly, the mixtape—they’ve made musical statements this year that no one else has or seems likely to duplicate. In Azealia’s case, the critical buzz on her has been red-hot since 212 dropped in mid-December last year. Major publications like NME and BBC music helped spread word and the song now has over twenty-three million hits on Youtube—forcing music execs to pay attention. To say 212 is brilliant, visionary music is an understatement…it’s still atop my list of the best songs of 2012. What the song helps to marry is the idea of the pervasive, underground gay dance music to the more mainstream hip/hop. The term used to describe it is house/hop or witch/house…the twinning of propulsive beats and smoldering vocals.

Fantasea, her “official” mixtape debut, doesn’t breach such celestial heights as 212 but the diversity on display makes clear what purpose the album serves: formal notice to lesser hip/hop stars like Nicki Minaj or legends on the verge of irrelevance like Missy Elliott that she, Azealia, is here now to reign. Most of the nineteen tracks here are for fun with a few being pre-released before now. Tracks like Neptune and Atlantis are just a playful interpretation of other hits but even then, Azealia finds innovative ways to explore her genre. The title track is the album’s first big statement and the awesomeness never lets up from there. F-ck Up the Fun makes the best Missy Elliott comparison to come her way yet, with its luscious filth and pre-programmed drums. Then there is Nathan, the standout that could have fit comfortably in any of Missy’s great albums, with its super crunchy beats. Nathan starts off a trio of exceptional, career-making grooves: L8TR (‘if it ain’t about a dollar/ I’m a holla at cha later’) is her love-for-money grab while Jumanji asserts her right to be a ‘real bitch, all day’ because at twenty-one she can.

After that she frames ideas on riffs of her contemporaries. It doesn’t diminish the mixtape but it does slow the tempo down. Her only hiccup occurs when she fails to add leverage to her themes with Fierce thus have it ending up being lesser because the obligatory drag voice in the midsection isn’t remarkable. It’s as if Azealia steps back in some gay recognition move that within itself isn’t interesting, hence needed to be edited out. Yet, Azealia knows she’s good and therein lays her secret joy…that self-belief that her raps can stand up to anyone else’s. We’ve been treated to her ideas so far but the true test is when her debut LP drops. For now, I’m content to let the kid enjoy herself without too much pressure.

Ocean has even done one step better given the context of Channel Orange. While some have questioned the timing of his letter outing himself, no one can deny the potency of this album. Given what we now know, the opener Thinking Bout You takes on even more lyrical significance. When he croons, ‘do you think about me still/ or do you not think so far ahead?, it achieves a tender affect. Like The Weeknd, Ocean is leading the new wave R&B school of young men who are looking past R. Kelly-esque frankness to connect to something far more significant: love. That’s the stunning thing about Channel Orange…it’s a long testament to newly discovered feelings and responsibility from a purely masculine perspective. For those fearing some gay-fest confessional, you’ll be disappointed. If you’re looking for blissful blues the way Usher or Chris Brown will never deliver, then this here is your pail of water. When I say Ocean reaches back to channel Stevie Wonder and even D’angelo here you get an idea of the dedication that went into the album.

The soulful Sweet Life (‘why see the world/ when you’ve got the beach…’) achieves a stunning, complex thing with its piano-drenched composition. What sells it so convincingly though is Ocean’s gorgeous vocal work as it expands to heights his Nostalgia, Ultra mixtape didn’t hint at last year. Pilot Jones is the type of sexy kitsch that only D’angelo can pull off—you know the panty-dropping type of track that oozes nothing but sex. Yeah, it’s that stunning. The album’s centerpiece though is Pyramids, a ten minute attempt to bind human life and sexual tension from ancient Egypt to now. It best reminds us of his brilliant Novocain last year, only it’s far more epic. The rest of the songs keep up this amazing level of consistency and confidence, so much so that it’s already had me wondering what he’ll come with next.

While the debate about his sexuality continues to shade how we see him as a musician, Ocean has helped to widen that grasp of understanding of an alternative reality deep within urban America. Channel Orange is a stunning peek into that type of adolescent world of half-grown men and-- if you watch HBO’s brilliant series Girls-- immature women, all who are waking up, or in this case coming out to new, frightening realities. Channel Orange is the best male R&B album since Rahsaan Patterson dropped Wines & Spirits five years ago, and its way better than that. He could have been a coward and shut the world out of what he was feeling, become a closet case but thankfully, he’s trusted us enough to air his fears and experiences. That’s when the best type of soul music gets done, when something real jolts an artist, opens up their eyes truly for the first time.

RATING: Frank Ocean 8/10
Azealia Banks 7.5/10

Newsroom (HBO, Sundays 9 pm)

Devil in the Details

Aaron Sorkin’s new dramatic series Newsroom starts out exactly as one expects any show about television journalism to: by attacking the president’s policies. The darkness lifts over voices contemplating whether Obama is socialist or not while Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) listens while being doped-up and slightly bored. He looks around---so familiar is the routine—and for a few seconds thinks he spots a particular female face in the crowd. The moment is disorientating until the moderator draws him into the discussion.

Because what happens next is Will getting unpatriotic and going H.A.M about the missing past greatness of America, so much so that it leaves everyone stunned to silence. Bridges plays the character in this moment brilliantly, his movements natural within their jaded context, the words espoused with consummate ease. The show ends and while he is being castigated for his behavior, he asks the most disturbing question of the night: ‘what did I say in there?’ Ouch. Right away, we get to realize—same as Will—that this traumatic incident has had repercussions. He’s forced to take a vacation of sorts because news anchors can’t afford to lose screws for long. People get iffy and long-suffering ills resurface. So, Will walks into his office the next time and finds everyone gone—shifted to another program, all by choice.

To Sorkin’s credit, Newsroom does not seek to bite off more than it can chew by remedying all journalistic ills. It seems headed that way once we’re introduced to the supporting cast, a whirl of overstated dialogue and speeches but once McKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) enters the fray then all is saved, literally. It’s a timely intervention because for all of Sorkin’s genius (The West Wing, The Social Network) the first episode swerves unevenly throughout its hour. There is improbability aplenty especially in the shape of Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston) and his allegiance to Will and the network itself. Sorkin seems to realize this because if episode one (We Just Decided To) was iffy then episode two (News Night 2.0) is astonishingly clever. From the opening banter between Will and McKenzie arguing about the set up for the show to the meeting room discussion, the pace of the repartee is brilliant and biting (‘FOX really hired someone with three Mohammeds in their name?’).

Sorkin’s most salient points here are not aimed at the stories being covered but the people presenting them. We’re viewing their functions in real time and seeing how all those pieces work in tandem for one whole presentation. And it is fascinating, especially how McKenzie runs the show and quips her methods to everyone. Her past relationship with Will frames their current situation but Sorkin has pared it off with their dedication to work. In a weird way, Skinner is Sorkin on film and Will is clearly Keith Olbermman-based. It’s anyone’s guess who McKenzie resembles in real life but Mortimer is a delight to watch as the hassled producer who must inspire her team while earning Will’s trust again.

The show succeeds on these basic levels along with the gripping stories it presents. The final minutes are dedicated to the news itself and Bridges at his best: when a beauty queen arrogantly states that the America she grew up in didn’t allow such rampant immigration, he shuts her up that at twenty that is exactly the type of America she grew up in. When she unwisely proceeds to state not in Oklahoma, he retorts especially in Oklahoma. We even get the ubiquitous Sarah Palin moment (‘the Dutch, they are known in Norwegia…for dykes’). This ambitious stretch of tragic-comedy isn’t unique to Newsroom currently but unlike Veep (hilarious in its own right) all persons in charge have their thinking caps on and buried deeply within their skulls. That is the Sorkin magic.

It figures that a series critical in its assessment of the media wouldn’t exactly find huge amounts of love by the same media now assessing it. Quite a few reviewers (after just the first episode) have called it self-congratulatory and smug, not even aware of how ironic that must seem. Sorkin’s gift has always been to underpin the realness behind official lives…not to present them merely as represented by the viral evidence we the general public go by. He understands the manipulation of such a process and the thin line those in public office tread to maintain the status quo. Newsroom, more than any other show this season so far, puts in context the frustration and awesomeness of news-making, devil in the details and all. It’s a scenario I wonder if our own media entities and personalities even go through any at all.

RATING: 8/10