Welcome to the second installment of a special series of Changeover Music, where I’ll be writing about my favorite songs of 2012. Of course, I’d love to play some of these tunes at tennis tournaments, but sadly all the arena DJ jobs are taken by people with little to no taste. Yes, Paris DJ, I’m looking at you. When would you play this song during a tennis match? Who would be the players involved? Feel free to leave your answers in the comments section below.
I still remember not knowing who the heck Frank Ocean was (even though I had listened to his nostalgia, ULTRA mixtape earlier in the year), sitting in my cubicle at my old job. It was early July, and I was looking for something new to listen to. Twitter was going nuts about Ocean, and someone mentioned that his upcoming album, channel ORANGE, was available for online streaming. I followed the link, and went to Ocean’s Tumblr, where he had in fact put up his entire album for people to listen, a week earlier than it was supposed to come out in earnest. I thought that was an interesting move, and I gave it a listen. After it was over, I hit “play” again. And again. And again.
channel ORANGE is a fascinating album, both as a musical product as well as cultural event. If you want to learn more about it, please check out its very thorough entry on Wikipedia – you will get the whole story there, so no need to even summarize it here. I’d like to focus on the music on this space.
The song starts with a bass-heavy drone and a few melancholic chords played on a classic-sounding keyboard. Then a hard beat on a snare drum kicks the song into an unexpected direction, the drone disappears, and a killer beat heavy on kick drum takes over. It reminds me of a slowed-down version of what John Henry Bonham does on Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song”. However, as this strange ballad gets louder, the element that drives the song is still that melancholic little keyboard from the beginning, which stays front and center as the drums kick in. We also get some jumpy organ chords to provide some contrast with the lead keyboard, and we can hear a few little keyboard blips that weave these different textures together. The bass jumps in a few beats before Ocean’s voice, which delivers some crushing lyrics:
You don’t know how little you matter
Until you’re all alone
In the middle of Arkansas
With a little rock left in that glass dick
After the subtle keyboard and the brutal drumbeat set the tone for the story, Ocean puts you smack in the middle of the story he wants to tell. This is a junkie he’s talking about, or talking to. Or maybe the junkie is the one who is talking to himself, as if he’s looking at his sorry self from the outside. We hear about the way things were in the past, before the “rocks”. How did our main character arrive to this desolate place where we found him at the start of the song?
At the 1:24 mark, Ocean shifts things dramatically: just after he’s crooned the chorus for the first time, a new character of sorts appears. Maybe it’s the junkie himself who now repeats part of the chorus in a breathy, broken voice. And just as this new voice appears, the drumbeat stops. Things get quiet for this new character, maybe so we can hear just how broken he is. Perhaps our junkie’s talking to himself at that particular moment in time, in the middle of nowhere in Arkansas. At this point we feel extremely close to this character, but Ocean brings in the ghosts that trouble him, in the form of the “Crack rock, crack rock” line of the chorus we had already heard, but this time with a second, deep voice alongside Ocean, giving it an eerie, supernatural feel. To unsettle us further, the hammering drums come back right after “rock”, and the dual voices haunt our narrator for just a little bit longer.
The first narrator comes back, the drums stop again, and we’re in a another moment of the junkie’s life – we learn about his struggle to get his fix, his isolation from his family, his inability to even get laid, as he falls further down the spiral of addiction. We realize that we started this tale at the end: slowly we learn how it is that “cracky” arrived at that depressing juncture, completely alone and devoid of much of himself. This is driven even more so by the last verse, where we hear about dealings with a crooked cop that end badly, 300 men looking for our junkie, and how he runs and runs, asking for no interruptions of his chemical nirvana, the best way he knows how to escape from everything. The way this last verse is constructed is absolutely masterful. There’s no new instrumentation, but instead Ocean adds that deep voice he used earlier to inspire that eerie feeling, and also adds some echo to his own voice, a gunshot, and as everything is spiraling steadily out of control, a new voice says “crack rock”, and the song ends abruptly.
As most of these sad tales tend to end.
Much is said about Frank Ocean’s ability to tell stories so vividly, and it’s spot on. What I find remarkable about Ocean is how consistently he makes such tasteful and meticulous musical decisions to not only accompany but enhance his storytelling. Much too often you hear of a “storyteller” who crafts wonderful tales but lays them out on a musical canvas that is neither wonderful nor interesting.
Ocean never falls into that trap, mindful that sound can enhance his words, and viceversa. This is why he takes such extraordinary care to weave that intricate tapestry of keyboard work, and isn’t afraid to add additional elements like the drone to start or the deep voice alongside his own to create a specific effect in the listener. He’s also not shy about manipulating his own voice to create different characters to paint this sad portrait.
The level of maturity when handling all these elements is just striking in someone who just recently turned 25. There’s such clarity in his musical decision-making that one can only wonder what’s in store for the rest of Frank Ocean’s career.
There’s no ceiling that I can see.