Def Jam's contracted edition of Frank Ocean's Nostalgia, Ultra never materialized. The label nonetheless released two of the mixtape's songs as singles. One of them, "Novacane," clashed with everything else on the radio, reached the Top 20 of Billboard's Hot R&B/Hip-Hop chart, and crossed into the Hot 100. The singer's presence spread with appearances on Goblin, 4, Watch the Throne, and The OF Tape, Vol. 2. He then completed this album with Malay, Om'Mas Keith, and Pharrell as his co-producers. Journalists present at June pre-release listening events speculated that some of the lyrics revealed Ocean's bisexuality. Ocean subsequently published a screen shot of a document, dated December 27, 2011, that included details of a crushing romantic relationship with a male. Ocean also revealed that he wrote for the sake of his sanity and credited his inner circle: "I'm sure these people kept me alive, kept me safe." One listen to Channel Orange makes it obvious that he is as free as an artist as he is as a man. The album doesn't have as many slyly powerful hooks as Nostalgia, Ultra, but Ocean's descriptive and subtle storytelling is taken to a higher level. He's up there with Bilal. As easy as it is to listen to Ocean's voice in long stretches -- he's casually expressive -- the number of deep ruminations over slow tempos requires some patience. Even the lone song that could be termed a banger is a ten-minute suite that takes 90 seconds to get on the floor; the song with the widest and most creative scope as well, "Pyramid" shifts from "my black Queen Cleopatra" and ancient Egypt (over swift synth funk) to "Your love ain't free no more" and a strip club (over booming, low-profile slickness). The lighter moments, such as the loose and bright "Sweet Life" and the relatively exuberant "Monks," both of which would be standouts on any N.E.R.D. album, offer more than bright coating, dealing in surrealism and sharp observations that are equally penetrating. On the other end, the most personal song is "Bad Religion," a phenomenal brokenhearted ballad consisting of organ, piano, strings, and handclaps: "This unrequited love/To me it's nothing but a one-man cult/And cyanide in my Styrofoam cup." Everything that falls between, counting the rumbling drug dependency tale "Crack Rock," the snapping/swooning "Pilot Jones," and the longing falsetto shuffle "Thinkin Bout You," is vivid and worthy of complete immersion.
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AllMusic Review by Andy Kellman