Frank hosts a 'Channel Orange' listening party in LA

capitol records tower frank ocean listening party.png

At the Los Angeles’s Capitol Records Tower last night, Frank Ocean hosted a listening party for his forthcoming debut Channel Orange. In attendance was a group of journalists, industry folks, and Frank's mother Katonya.

This preview follows another one in NYC last friday. In attendance was a group of journalists some from Pitchfork, The Fader, Complex, and more. From their reports of the event, as well as Grantland's below, we can start to gather an idea of what the record might sound like, even if we haven't heard it yet ourselves.

From Sean Fennessey at Grantland:

Last night at Los Angeles’s Capitol Records Tower, Ocean played Channel Orange, his official debut album, in Studio A. Nearly 25 people huddled — label reps, a smattering of journalists and radio folk, managers, some guys in cargo shorts, and his mom — phones were commandeered, and everyone was forced to pay attention for the album’s hour-long duration. (People looked genuinely unnerved by the absence of devices in their hands.) It was the first time everyone other than 24-year-old Frank and his handlers had heard it, including his mom. “This is the first time I heard it,” she was overheard saying. “A perfect summertime album.” This is sort of true, but not for the reasons a mother might think.

Channel Orange is a strange, beautiful thing. Like some combination of Stevie Wonder’s Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants, Beck’s Midnite Vultures, and Marvin Gaye’s Here, My Dear, with ripples of George Benson’s Beyond the Blue Horizon tossed in, it is simultaneously reaching and small. There are big orchestral swings, and little glances at melody. It opens with a short track called “Start” that is essentially the start-up screen from the original PlayStation. There’s a 10-minute song smack in the middle called “Pyramids.” It’s stitched together by intermittent recordings from old television shows and radio calls, the cries of mad, weird people surrounded by earnest, soft-focus songs. Like so many of the best, wounded oddities from American culture, from Raymond Chandler to Paul Thomas Anderson to Steely Dan, Southern California is the setting. Tales of rich kids in Ladera Heights, “the black Beverly Hills,” transplanted girls reduced to shucking and jiving for crack rock, and strippers dancing for you and you alone, Channel Orange at first seems like a cable-access station transmission from the mind of Larry Flynt. It’s illicit, but also sort of depressing. It swallows you up in experience, but also makes you want to retreat. It grooves, then grumbles. A song written from the perspective of a woman tracking Ocean, “Forrest Gump,” uses the Tom Hanks character and maybe the vantage point of his beloved Jenny to portray a series of missed connections. Ocean tells stories, sometimes explicitly — his biggest hit, last year’s “Novacane,” is probably best-known for its plainly stated first verse:

Model broad with a Hollywood smile
Stripper booty and a rack like, “Wow”
Brain like Berkeley
Met her at Coachella
I went to see Jigga
She went to see Z-Trip
I took a seat on the ice cold lawn
She handed me a ice blue bong

She said she wanna be dentist really badly
She’s in school paying
For tuition doing porn in the Valley
At least you workin’

There are three guests on the album, and none of them are haphazard choices. The lost-and-found Earl Sweatshirt, low-toned but riveting with complex rhyme schemes on “Super Rich Kids”; Andre 3000, who adds one-and-a-half verses to the arresting “Pink Matter”; and John Mayer — yep, John Mayer — who adds two show-stopping solos on “Pyramids” and “Pink Matter.” To say this is the best musical thing Mayer has ever done is probably fair, and Channel Orange is, surprisingly, a guitar album. All three of those figures have had a strange few years, hiding in the shadows, trying to figure out how much fame they want and need, examining some of their bad choices. They’re Frank Ocean’s kind of guys.

While the album played through, Ocean sat quietly, hands enmeshed together, staring into the mixing board. Occasionally he’d lean back a bit and mouth the words to one of his songs. He never, not once, looked at anyone for the 59-minute album’s running time. By contrast, and for the purposes of explaining these sorts of situations, there was a different energy at a listening session in April for label-mate and fellow R&B auteur The-Dream. Terius Nash, as The-Dream is sometimes known, isbrash. He wore a vintage Michael Jordan home jersey (no. 23, not 45, obviously) and selvedge jeans. He jumped up and down, singing along, claiming each song a future hit. Ocean wore a white T-shirt, black denim, and Vans. He never spoke, not even to name a song. Frank Ocean is barely there.

When the album concluded, Ocean turned around and said, “That’s Channel Orange.” People clapped and he looked like he wanted to tear the skin from his flesh while exiting the room very quickly. KCRW’s Chris Douridas managed to sneak in a few questions, about the title and the guests. Turns out this isn’t a radio broadcast from a deluded mind. It’s about what he called synesthesia, but is more specifically grapheme, the neurological condition that associates colors with letters and numbers. It’s sometimes called “seeing sounds,” which was the name of a 2008 album by Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo’s N*E*R*D. Ocean mentioned that he and Pharrell, who co-produced two songs on Orange and is clearly a hero of Ocean’s, talk about their synesthesia all the time. The album title is a reference to the syndrome and what he saw the first time he fell in love. It was the summer, and everything was orange. Just like this summer.