Frank Ocean needed some time. Sometime after ‘Nostalgia, Ultra’ (and its sensational ‘Songs For Women‘) and before the ironic, spectacular Twitter pseudo-coming out that came to define him for a moment, Frank Ocean became an RnB staple. But, perhaps in accordance with his rapid and unconventional rise to fame (hardly even piggybacking off his Odd Future contacts), Frank is not your normal RnB singer. While what many saw as his overnight success has put a few noses out of joint – not least one Twitter character I saw questioning what the hype was all about, what was new and/or different about Ocean – there is no doubt, two months since its release, that ‘Channel Orange’ is anything but same same. Caught up in the huge promotion, festival appearances and gushing praise for the 24 year-old who had, some seemed to forget, been around for almost five years when he released his debut, I was keen to post on ‘Lost’. Noticing that J already had made me take a step back, a deep breath and remind myself to return to the subject matter when some of the initial hysteria had dissipated.
So this, then, is a treatise on ‘Sweet Life’, almost 60 days after the track’s slinky bassline, jazz keys and superlative vocals first had me enchanted. If anything, the intervening months have served to clarify that although propelled by buzz, ‘Channel Orange’ well deserved most of the breathless praise directed its way as, across the operatic ‘Pyramids’ ( released today), Weeknd-esque haze of ‘‘ and right through 17 impressively diverse tracks, the album continues to stand up, undiminished by the fact that the hot focus of popular opinion has moved on, undeterred by the fact that it is no longer flavour of the week. What the benefit of hindsight has proved about Frank Ocean is that he has hit on a winning formula. In producing songs that are both immediately arresting, lascivious and warm, charming little RnB earworms and tracks that are intricately layered, emotionally complex and technically superb – and making the first set of tracks directly correlate to the second – Ocean’s given us an album that is instant gratification and prolonged gratification in one.
‘Sweet Life’ fits into this schema of upfront addiction followed closely by more profound appreciation swimmingly well. Borrowing on the themes explored to such great effect with Earl Sweatshirt on ‘‘ and peering behind the white picket fences and manicured hedges of Ladera Heights (‘the black Beverly Hills’), we get a picture of the sort of aimless decadence, the wasteful youth that makes Bret Easton Ellis novels so enthralling and appalling at the same time. The smooth way ‘Sweet Life’ starts, all light keys and typical Ocean elongated phrasing, lulls you into the same sense of false security that those super rich kids the subject of the track experience and the modality of the song inches up ever so slowly so that by the time a whispered falsetto gives way to the ‘ape shit crazy’, driving harmonies towards 3’20″, you’re caught off guard by the shocking picture of indulgence Frank has filled out. Whether taken with the lounge-like vibe of the whole piece or with the subtle social commentary, hinted at not so much in the lyrics as in the ebb and flow of the track itself, the experience of a ‘Sweet Life’ listen is equally rewarding. Commercial and critical acclaim don’t converge too often. When they do, it’s with good reason.
Frank Ocean – Sweet Life