This article is in no way intended to be a “takedown” of Frank Ocean. I’m glad so many people love Channel Orange. I don’t think they shouldn’t, and I don’t doubt the sincerity of Ocean’s fans. But the near-universal praise for Channel Orange worries me on two fronts:
It’s symptomatic of music critics’ affection for the incomplete. I want to tread lightly here, because some of my best friends are music critics, and it’s something I still dabble in myself. But I know from firsthand experience that it’s in the critic’s nature to praise potential and distrust the accomplished. The unassailably good is tough to write about without sounding like a PR flack, or a joiner. And because critics spend a lot of time sorting through slickly undistinguished work, sometimes the disjointed has a more immediate appeal, just because it stands out. But speaking as someone who now approaches music primarily as a consumer, I’m increasingly dismayed by how many acclaimed rock and pop albums contain a few decent melodic ideas that have gone unfinished in the name of sounding more raw. As someone who relies on music critics to point me toward records I might like, I feel ill-served.
It may give Frank Ocean the wrong idea. I think Ocean’s talented, and there’s nothing wrong with him making minor, sketchy albums on his way to something greater. But already with Channel Orange, there’s a sense of Ocean reacting to the spotlight that shone on him after Nostalgia, Ultra did so well. And that “making a statement” aspect of Channel Orange—the feeling of build-up embedded in the structure of the album itself, with its intros, interludes, and vamps—runs counter to the songs’ relative smallness. Similarly, the Wikipedia entries for both Nostalgia, Ultra and Channel Orange are massive affairs, running more than 5000 words each, or about the same length as the entry for The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. That isn’t Ocean’s fault, of course. But it suggests a level of fan interest way out of proportion to the album’s significance. Some things aren’t meant to be this monumental.
I think both of these features are at work in a lot of contemporary culture: there's a tendency to think 'dark' or 'imperfectly executed' or 'haphazardly constructed' mean 'real,' and therefore are good in and of themselves. There's also a related trend to see 'well-executed, but minor' as a significant accomplishment. The result is a lot of praise going to people who either haven't yet produced anything significant at a high level of quality, or who have produced a lot of well-regarded but low-quality work.
(Tangent: the rise of the t.v. auteur is very strange. If the goal of your end product is 'realism,' it seems trivially obvious that this will be easier to produce if you have more time to get it done: give me 10 hours and I can give you a few things that will strike deeply, if I have even a modicum of talent: I can rely on you as a viewer to forget the boring parts. To do it in 90 minutes with no filler is a much more difficult task.)
The other difficulty is that it makes it harder to appreciate work where the structure is more intentional, and the work more sophisticated, because anything that does not seem immediate in its relevance is dismissed, and dismissed precisely because this is the proper attitude to take to the haphazard and imperfect. In a lesser work, if it seems like it shouldn't be in there, it probably shouldn't be, and one may ignore it; but the small and seemingly insignificant is still important in greater works.