I know that it’s been a while since I’ve posted – turns out that it only gets harder to update once you’ve been away for a while. But I suppose I can solve the issue by taking away the self-imposed pressure to produce an insightful article every time.
This time, for instance, I just want to rave about one of my favorite new albums – channel ORANGE by Frank Ocean, one of the Odd Future gang. I don’t know why I’m so into R & B lately. At the surface, it just seems to be an outlet for talented singers to lay their emotions out on the table, over minimal instrumentation. But there are a couple of things that make R & B into really good R & B – first of all, the rhythm of their singing is, as you’d guess, really important. For example, in one of my favorite tracks of the Ocean album, “Thinkin Bout You”, a solitary string instrument sets the tone, and then Frank’s voice comes in, and it sounds like this (my emphasis):
A TORnado flew around my ROOM before you came exCUSE the mess it made it USually doesn’t rain in, southern california MUCH like arizona, my* eyes* don’t* shed* tears but boy they pour when
(* sung in staccato)
The verse sounds like a tornado, with a strong beat cascading into a ramble, and then back to a beat again. The staccato single-syllable words then center the content on the speaker. It’s a whirlwind of a beginning to an incredibly touching song.
The other thing about R & B is that it makes me appreciate lyrics, because of the skill in timing of the vocals. In “Super Rich Kids”, the lyrics are very insightful:
Too many bottles of this wine we can’t pronounce
Too many bowls of that green, no Lucky Charms
The maids come around too much (long pause)
Parents ain’t around enough
Too many joy rides in daddy’s Jaguar
Too many white lies and (beat!) white lines
Super rich kids with nothing but loose ends
Super rich kids with nothing but fake friends
The beat between “white lies” and “white lines” would seem to be a poet’s worst nightmare – why not fill the line with enough syllables to avoid that? But R & B is a different kind of poetry, and the beat there emphasizes both 1) the humor of juxtaposing “white lies” and “white lines”, which differ by one letter, but one is (by definition) harmless, while the other is very harmful and 2) the seriousness of this song and this topic. It might seem like Ocean is making fun of rich kids (after all, “too many bottles” of fancy wine doesn’t seem like a problem), but in fact, he sees the pain inherent in being closed off from the real world, and the irony that too much is actually never enough. And “loose ends” and “fake friends” are significant causes of distress, no matter what socioeconomic bracket you fall in. Indeed, suicide is the main theme of the song (“I say I’ll jump, I never do”…”close my eyes and feel the crash”). Earl Sweatshirt’s beautifully delivered rap in the song also makes it an extremely worthwhile listen.
R & B has a very loose definition, and goes back a long time. At the root of all good R & B, however, is raw honesty. Even a song like “My Girl” by The Temptations – the seeming antithesis to “Super Rich Kids” – makes you feel the protagonist’s pure emotion. Frank Ocean’s new album qualifies as good R & B, because of the emotion and honesty he brings to it.