Frank Ocean Is Boring: The Year Lifeless Music Found Critical Praise
This does not, however, mean he made a good record. Channel Orange is listless in the extreme. On several tracks, Ocean seems barely to be keeping himself awake behind the microphone. That's when you can actually hear his voice, which is often buried under layers of production. It's hard to tell if this is intentional, or if Ocean is just unable to muster the strength to sing louder than his beats, no matter how much his producers turn them down.
The greatest r&b stars, from Marvin Gaye to Diana Ross, Teddy Pendergrass to Usher, R. Kelly, and even (believe) Justin Bieber have a crackling energy. Marvin Gaye isn't covered in sweat on the cover of his live albums because it was hot at Carnegie Hall--he exploded with emotion on stage, and his voice was always bursting with feeling. Even laid-back songs, like those found on Kelly's album from this year, Write Me Back, are relentlessly moody and funny. All of this is totally absent on Channel Orange. Critics who've found themselves blown away by Ocean might be wise to listen Miguel's lively and irresistibly sexy "Adorn" for a serious compare and contrast.
The closest predecessor for Ocean, however, is former Canadian teen star Drake. He's spent the last three years or so at the top of the charts with a particular kind of laid-back, modern R&B that can mix boasts and introspection, often in the same line. Sound familiar? Effectively, Ocean isn't doing anything that hasn't done very recently and very well. The major difference between the works of the two is that Ocean has been praised as being "revolutionary" for removing anything exciting, danceable, or funny from Drake's work.
One last thing, directed at every commentator that compared Ocean to Prince. On three out of the last five tracks on Orange, Ocean's voice suddenly jumps an octave and the songs begin with melodramatic organ flourishes. In other words, he is basically doing a Prince impression. These are the only tracks where a comparison to Prince makes any sense, as the record is not overflowing with angular guitars, overblown piano interludes, complex internal mythology, or, again, anything approaching the energy of even the worst Prince song ("Diamonds and Pearls," maybe?). Doing a Prince impression does not make you an artist like Prince.
What can we learn from a year like this, where the indie community rallies around the most boring records of the year? A year where lifelessness is life? Is everybody out there depressed about something? Maybe, after everything, it's nothing more than a positive economic indicator. They say that in an economic depression, the people as a mass want diversion and distraction. The worse the depression, the bigger the lines of dancing girls. By that measure, 2012 has seen a complete economic turnaround. Somebody get the guys at Planet Money on this.