Posts Tagged ‘originality’

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Frank Ocean – channel ORANGE (album review)

July 17, 2012

The first I time I took notice of Frank Ocean was when I found out that he was the writer of one of my favourite songs, “I Miss You” from Beyoncé’s 4. By this point, he was already gaining some buzz as a member of the Odd Future collective, and so I downloaded his mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra. I fell in love with songs such as “Novocane” and “American Wedding” immediately, while others such as “Swim Good” and “Strawberry Swing” grew on me after a couple of listens. I was convinced that Ocean was indeed skilled at creating R&B that was a bit more grown than the electro-dance recycling going on in the charts, and that focused on exploring human emotions. In this way, he set himself apart in my mind, and I was excited to see what he would do next.

Enter channel Orange. If anything, it’s less accessible than Nostalgia, Ultra. or than many of the songs that make up Ocean’s mammoth The Lonny Breaux Collection. For the most part, songs don’t announce themselves (and certainly not with typical verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus structures) as much as their melodies seep into your head with repeated listens. However, between the lush instrumentation (and there is definitely genuine instrumentation going on here; these are more than just pre-paid beats) and resonating lyrics, after each listen one takes away something more from the experience. channel ORANGE is a meticulously crafted piece of work, and there is much to discuss. It’s at times difficult to penetrate the chilled, hazy vibe of the album to find a meaty hook of the type that we’re used to – and I feel it would have been nice to have had more of these sprinkled through the album – but there’s nevertheless plenty of sustenance here.

Opening track “Thinkin Bout You” is possibly the most immediate song on the record, and it’s utterly beautiful: the way Ocean uses his falsetto is reminiscent of Prince, and evokes the feelings of at once being totally in love and feeling totally alone in that love, desolate and desperate. While not a technical vocalist to rival R. Kelly or Usher, Frank Ocean knows how to use his voice to maximum effect. The lyrics in the song evoke the unrequited first love that we all knew, and that Ocean wrote about so eloquently in his open letter posted on tumblr. The bravery of an R&B star, of a black man with ties to and props from the largely chauvinist hip hop community, to come out as bisexual two weeks before his album was released has not gone unnoticed, and should not be ignored; rightly so, it appears that Ocean’s success – and I personally believe that even without the announcement / confirmation of his sexuality, channel ORANGE would have been a hit – has been bolstered. Support has been largely overflowing, and it would appear that at last, times might be changing – and not just because Obama and Jay-Z gave black men permission to support their fellow man if that man happened to be gay or bisexual. But in terms of the music and in terms of Ocean’s letter, the focus pulls away from the object of his affections being male or female to the beauty and the intricacy of the sentiment. Sometimes Ocean sings to a boy, sometimes to a girl – but 100% of the time, it sounds beautiful, the lyrics are deep and honest, and the songs as a whole don’t simplify but rather reflect the complexity of the subject matter of being infatuated, in love and lost in love. “Bad Religion”, another standout on the album, begins with a howling organ which Ocean’s plaintive vocal joins to express his loneliness and despair. Lines like “I can’t tell you the truth about my disguise” and “It’s a bad religion to be in love with someone who could never love you” are at once more detailed than what one finds in a typical R&B song for the radio, and yet the emotions of someone in love can’t be put much more simply, or laid bare any more.

Subject matter on channel ORANGE doesn’t just limit itself to romance found and lost, but tackles other topics too. “Super Rich Kids” explores precisely that, but the lyrics could apply equally to the inhabitants of Ladera Heights and to the wealthy-yet-jaded entertainers in the music industry: “Too many bottles of this wine we can’t pronounce…too many white lies and white lines…nothing but fake friends.” The coda which robs the hook from Mary J. Blige’s “Real Love” lends the track an air of nostalgia while giving the listener something recognisable to grab onto. “Crack Rock” likens loneliness to drug addiction, and fastens to these emotions details of being ostracised by family and society. In some ways “Pyramids” is the centrepiece of the album – an epic 10 minutes that starts out evoking Egyptian deserts, before seguing into a sexier exploration of making love to a stripper called Cleopatra. While lyrically drawing parallels between how women were and are at once worshipped and subjugated by men, the production starts off bouncy, transitions through seductive into sleazy, and fades out with a howling guitar Pink Floyd or Jimi Hendrix would be proud of.

Interludes give the album a sense of constant flow, and the overarching feel is nostalgia-soaked classic quality. channel ORANGE isn’t immediately accessible to non-R&B heads, and rewards repeated listens. If I could improve anything about the album, while I commend its artistry and sense of originality and self, it would be nice for some of the songs to have some more standout hooks. But overall, Frank Ocean has done himself and the world of R&B proud with this album – it’s deep, intelligent, textured and heartfelt.

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Sugababes – Sweet 7. (album review)

February 7, 2010

Sweet 7 marks the 7th album from the Sugababes, and the first album from the newest incarnation of the group, consisting now of Heidi Range, Amelle Berrabah and Jade Ewen.  Furore of no original members remaining aside, Sweet 7 evidences a complete glossy polishing of the group’s sound that started upon Mutya’s departure after Taller In More Ways, one of the group’s best albums.  Sweet 7 is full of pounding clubby pop uptempos, with a couple of ballads at the end to slow down the pace.  For the most part (the piece-of-trash “Thank You For The Heartbreak” aside), these are well-written, catchy pop songs with a couple of pleasant surprises along the way.  “Wear My Kiss” and “About A Girl” are smashes-in-waiting that don’t deserve to fare badly on the charts just because of bad feeling towards the group’s revolving-door lineup.  “No More You” sounds like a Stargate production in the vein of Beyoncé’s smash “Irreplaceable”, and standout “She’s A Mess” has some hilarious lyrics (“drinking bottle after bottle after bottle…” / “Everybody go mad, everybody go psycho!”) and multiple hooks, plus an irresistible instrumental coda that keeps you dancing and pressing repeat.  This track sounds as if it could be addressed to Ke$ha, dissing trashtastic, classless girls everywhere (perhaps Amelle has reformed her drunken antics and girl-bashing self?) who just live to party and get drunk.

The ballads that close the album feel a bit tacked-on, and could have been better incorporated into the sequence of the album as a whole, but “Crash & Burn” and particularly “Little Miss Perfect” are well-sung efforts that offer a nice change of pace from the mostly relentless 4/4 beats of the disc.  Sunny acoustic-led track “Sweet & Amazing” offers a lyrical insight on optimism and getting what you want out of life; the message is nice and appreciated, but the lyrics themselves come across as trite and banal.  Still, the overall vibe of the song is endearing. Perhaps “Sweet & Amazing” and “Little Miss Perfect” are also answers to those who have criticised the group for ousting last founding member Keisha Buchanan, stating in not so many words that the group had to do what it had to do to survive and to maintain a healthy inter-member relationship.  Who knows – but these songs at least give a little bit of meat for fans and listeners to bite into.

However, Keisha’s absence is gaping for two major reasons.  One: anyone who has heard the original Sweet 7 sampler with Keisha’s vocals knows just how much better “Get Sexy” and “Miss Everything” sounded before.  This is largely a production error: the intro on “Get Sexy” no longer grabs the listener with any vocals; Jade Ewen’s voice on “Miss Everything” is unnecessarily auto-tuned within an inch of its life, and the modulations on her voice are at least double that of Heidi’s and Amelle’s, which seems illogical considering that Jade Ewen is far and away the best vocalist in the new incarnation of the group.  Indeed, the new rendition of “Wait For You” places Jade front and centre, and her vocals particularly in the second verse are nothing short of thrilling. Technically, she might be the best vocalist the Sugababes have ever had, and it is almost a shame that she sacrificed her solo career to be part of the group; especially when the re-produced songs make little effort to blend her vocals with Heidi and Amelle’s.  Through no fault of Jade’s own, at times her vocals stick out like a sore thumb, not just because she outclasses her fellow members at nearly every turn, but because the vocal mixing appears to have been carried out by an orang-utan.  This seems to be a running theme with the Sugababes, as Amelle’s vocals on tracks such as “Red Dress” sounded nothing short of harsh, but with newer songs came a more subtle, blended approach to the production.  Hopefully future albums will exhibit the same approach.

Two: as hinted at in the introduction to this review, the Sugababes’ new music is extremely polished, but it has lost nearly all semblance of any originality the group had.  Songs such as “Overload”, “New Year”, “Round Round” and “Situations Heavy” sounded unique to the group, as if they could be sung by nobody else.  The shout-out of “RedOne!” at the start of “About A Girl” might as well be changed to “We’ve used Lady GaGa’s producer, please love our single too!”; “Thank You For The Heartbreak” could be sung just as easily (and probably better) by the Sugababes’ biggest rivals Girls Aloud; “Miss Everything”, while a ridiculously catchy song, features Sean Kingston in an unnecessary attempt to pander to the American market.  “Crash & Burn” sounds like something Chris Brown could sing and in fact did sing on his mediocre Graffiti track “Crawl”.  Only towards the end of the album on quirky tracks such as “Give It To Me Now” does a shade of the Sugababes’ original spunky personality creep in. I’m a believer that when the group lost Mutya Buena, they lost what made the Sugababes that irresistible combination of street, edge and class.  Even looking at the album and single covers from Sweet 7 (not to mention the horrendous video for “About A Girl”), the Sugababes are posing in skimpy outfits and pouting like their lives depend on it.  In the old days, their individuality stood out; perhaps in a loss of confidence, the group now looks and sounds desperate to fit in, which is a shame as they used to lead the pack, and with a strong set of well-written tracks on Sweet 7, they don’t need to resort to such pedestrian tactics.  In trying to be edgy and stand out, the Sugababes have lost their sense of individuality and ironically end up blending in with your average girl group or classless female singer.

So, what to make of Sweet 7?  It’s balanced heavily towards the uptempo, but most of its songs do succeed and the album is a fun listen with a few standout cuts.  Jade Ewen is a thrilling addition to the group, and were the vocal production a little better, her voice would elevate the material to stellar status.  The ballads are serviceable for the most part, and in my opinion there is only one unlistenable song on the disc (putting the album ahead of Change and Catfights And Spotlights).  However, it’s a shame that the Sugababes have lost that spark and class that set them apart from the rest of the pack.  In trying to compete with the rest of the shallow, faceless current pop music scene – regardless of who now comprises the group – the Sugababes have automatically lowered themselves to the level of their peers, and that is sad because they could have made a great album instead of a solid but unexceptional one.