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

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