It used to be easier to pretend that an album was its own perfectly self-contained artifact. The great records certainly feel that way. But albums are more permeable than solid, their motivations, executions and inspirations informed by, and often stolen from, their peers and forbearers. It all sounds awfully formal, but it’s not. It’s the very nature of music — of art, even. The Six Degrees features examine the relationships between classic records and five other albums we’ve deemed related in some way. In some cases these connections are obvious, in others they are tenuous. But, most important to you, all of the records are highly, highly recommended.
R&B auteur Frank Ocean's masterful and disarming major-label debut channel ORANGE is meticulously structured like a long-planned confession, and as Ocean announced shortly before its release, it presents a major one: The first love Ocean alludes to in lead track "Thinkin Bout You"; the unreciprocated love that haunts him in "Bad Religion" and who ultimately runs away in "Forrest Gump" at the end, is a man. Celebrating an autobiographical same-sex attraction, however anguished, and pinpointing its subject with masculine nouns, is nothing less than revolutionary for a mainstream African-American male performer. It would overshadow a lesser work, but it is but one revelation among many here. Ocean presides over his album like a visionary filmmaker, one who favors bright colors and stylized mise-en-scène to offset dark and raw emotional states.
Ocean narrates ORANGE as both participant and shell-shocked observer of "the sweet life": Drugs are everywhere. Women are riding him like an escalator to the heavens. Super-rich kids and their super-fake friends swarm around him like bees. Despite his bemused detachment, there's a fireball of hurt smoldering at the center of Ocean's psyche, and he drifts through ORANGE's dream-reality, hanging on to the memory of his painful but profoundly true first love as if it were the ladder of a swimming pool that suddenly got way too deep. Meanwhile, a fluidly shape-shifting backdrop morphs from kaleidoscopic soul grooves to bleak techno to lush orchestral interludes and beyond, further intensifying his inner and outer visions.
He cries out for help with a clarity that's both stunning and disarming, flipping double and triple entendres the way showier singers get churchy: He likens the "Pink Matter" of his lover's womb to peaches, mangos, cotton candy and Dragon Ball villain Majin Buu. His subject matter and vocabulary similarly bares the schooling of hip-hop bards: The multi-part epic "Pyramids" concerns a time-traveling Cleopatra the unemployed narrator ultimately pimps in a motel so shabby it's still got a VCR; "Crack Rock" bemoans the difference between the death of a dope-pushing cop and a brother who gets popped — one brings out a search party 300 strong, the other dies "and don't no one hear the sound."
Yet Ocean spins this grit with the luminous vibrancy of the best singer-songwriters, burnishing everything to brilliance with pleading delivery and love of wandering jazz chords. He's both R&B classicist and rebel; a buoyant Stevie Wonder with Elvis Costello's acerbic wit while serving up his own favorite flavor — bittersweet. "You run my mind, boy/ Running on my mind," he croons to his muse, then whistles to him like Otis as if sittin' on the dock of the bay, gazing at one of the album's many pink skies that mask the blues within.
The Neo-Soul Sensualist
Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and Prince all cast long shadows over Frank Ocean, but his major-label debut is filtered through the free-flowing bohemianism of the late-'90s and early-2000s neo-soul movement. Although Ocean sings about "keeping it surreal," he's less quasi-mystical than Erykah Badu, and although channel ORANGE shares a guitarist-bassist, eight-string virtuoso Charlie Hunter, with D'Angelo's Voodoo, Ocean is less interested in pure funk. Plus, channel ORANGE is more narrative-oriented than Maxwell. In fact, the best comparison, and a great album in its own right, is this 2000 debut by Jill Scott. The Philly poet-singer-actress shares Ocean's lyrical bluntness, breezy keys and album-length relationship theme. Ocean sings of "Sierra Leone"; Scott invokes the Serengeti. Jazzy spoken-word cut "Exclusively," with its unrestrained sex talk and grocery store twist ending, and bass-heavy "Gettin' in the Way," the smoothest cat-fight song ever, both have similarities to Ocean's storytelling approach. On the flamenco-flavored "One Is the Magic #," Scott waxes whimsical in Spanish about the greatest love at all — an oddball move Ocean might appreciate, and a statement of self-worth he deserves to take to heart.
The Blues-Pop Storyteller
If all you know about John Mayer is that he dated Jessica Simpson, did a terribly insensitive Playboy interview and sang the femme-friendly seduction "Your Body Is a Wonderland," you might have raised an eyebrow at his inclusion on the album credits. But it's actually every bit as logical as the involvement of Earl Sweatshirt, AndrÃ© 3000 or Pharrell. In fact, Pharrell has called Ocean "the black James Taylor," a distinction that, Bill Clinton-like, some wag might have applied to Mayer had the clearly talented singer-songwriter simply kept his mouth shut when asked about his "hood pass." Like Ocean, Mayer is a melody-minded, pop-oriented storyteller steeped in blues, jazz and funk. Also like Ocean, he has collaborated with Kanye West (Graduation bonus track "Bittersweet Poetry") and Jay-Z (at a New Year's 2011 show — after the offending interview). And 2006's Continuum, which also features channel ORANGE/Voodoo jazz-funk virtuoso Charlie Hunter, is Mayer's magnum opus, examining politics both global and personal with clear-eyed sincerity. It's a scope that Ocean might successfully achieve on a future album, delivered by one of his current masterpiece's most widely misunderstood guests. But you heard it from Mayer first: "Me and all my friends, we're all misunderstood," he begins, then launches into what dean-of-all-rock-critics Robert Christgau rightly called perhaps the greatest anti-fascist song of the Bush era.
The Hitmaker-Turned-R&B Eccentric
As a songwriter-for-hire, Terius "The-Dream" Nash wrote bigger hits than Ocean did. As a recording artist, The-Dream makes bigger albums, too, at least in terms of being larger-than-life. The scribe behind Rihanna's "Umbrella" and BeyoncÃ©'s "Single Ladies" set the no-holds-barred template for the present-day songwriter-turned-R&B-star. 2007 hit "Shawty Is a 10," from solo debut Love Hate, made "urban" Top 40 radio safe for bouncy piano before Drake — and bears no slight resemblance to channel ORANGE's "Super Rich Kids." I'd listen to arguments in favor of any one of The-Dream's three albums, plus his 1977 mixtape or, maybe best of all, his Elektrik Red girl-group project, but 2009 sophomore outing Love Vs Money seems most spiritually in keeping with the record at hand. Lightly funky radio fare ("Walkin on the Moon," "Mr. Yeah") makes room for an expansive, ingenious mid-album suite. "Kellys 12 Play," which basically extended to R. Kelly's self-referential genius to its ultimate extreme, left no doubt: Where R&B meets hip-hop, anything goes. What's more, The-Dream's answer here to critics of his vocal ability is one that Ocean's fans would do well to memorize: "If they ask you, can I sing like Usher, say n o/ But I can make you sing like Mariah."
The Emo-R&B Peer
When Ocean told The New York Times he preferred not to make himself the focus point of all of his songs, likening himself to a filmmaker rather than a diarist, it made sense to think of Drake. Like channel ORANGE, Drake's 2011 sophomore outing Take Care expertly toes the line between hip-hop, R&B and more leftfield sonics, with a particular delight in gentle keyboards. The in-the-moment realism of Ocean's wonderful "Bad Religion," especially, brings to mind the intimacy of a Drake track like the "Marvin's Room," which trades a taxicab confession for a late-night drunk dial. Take Care also features contributions from the Weeknd, Gil Scott Heron and Jamie xx, all of whose styles have elements in common with channel ORANGE (though the Weeknd, after his diminishing-returns run of mixtapes, is now clearly no longer Ocean's peer). The Juvenile-sampling "Practice" shows Drake is unafraid of Ocean-style unexpected appropriations, while other late-album cuts like grandmother ode "Look What You've Done" and the nearly a cappella "The Ride" demonstrate an uncommon sensitivity to lyrical detail that Ocean certainly shares. It's possible channel ORANGE might definitively destroy the legitimacy of a club-obsessed record like Take Care, and Drake clearly lacks Ocean's vocal chops, but for now, in the world of word-wise, vulnerable artists whose appeal transcends genre, they represent each other's closest competition.
The Pop-Idol Protectress
Ocean's guest vocal on Watch the Throne can be heard anytime the trailer for Denzel Washington's latest movie runs, which at this point has been often. Less remarked upon is BeyoncÃ©'s "I Miss You," a heart-wrenching ballad written by Ocean for her 2011 album 4. The song is pure Ocean, a deceptively mellow, electronics-shocked paean to an unrequited love. "No matter who you love/ It is so simple," BeyoncÃ© sings, in Ocean's words, and the lyric has recently taken on a new possible significance; after Ocean let us in on the story of his first love, the former Destiny's Child singer posted a simple but heartfelt image of support online. As a whole, 4 is more ambitious and adventurous than non-BeyoncÃ© listeners might expect, starting with the itchy, percussive "Run the World (Girls)" (whose co-writing credits include The-Dream and Diplo). AndrÃ© 3000 is here, too, rhyming alongside Kanye West's "swagu" on the lithe, summery "Party." The overstuffed "Countdown," with its Boyz II Men sample and its deep-in-the-mix orgasmic moans, is regarded by many, myself included, as the best pop song of 2011. In the exuberant, '80s-style adult contemporary of "Love on Top" or the bombastic eternal-love power ballad "1+1," BeyoncÃ© sets out the template for a singer who has always been, not the deep cut, but the single. Ocean's stunning debut is of the type that makes you hope against hope that he might one day reach a similar height of acclaim. With feeling.