Monday, July 16, 2012


First of all, it would be futile and somewhat irresponsible to ignore Frank Ocean's "coming out" preceding the release of Channel ORANGE, his major label solo debut, since most people hadn't even heard of him before the announcement (Is he related to Billy Ocean?).  Well, correction; they may have heard him, but didn't know who he was.  This was pretty much the case with me.  I had heard his voice plaintively crooning on Jay-Z and Kanye West's "No Church In The Wild" and "Made In America" but didn't know much about him as an artist.
Most people's knee-jerk reaction might've been to see Ocean's revelation about his sexuality as a ploy to drum up some attention for his album.  This, in and of itself, speaks to an important shift in our culture.  Controversy is often good for business, but 20, even 10 years ago this would have been a surefire way to derail a music career, not boost sales.  The fact that Ocean is a hip-hop artist actually still leaves his fate unclear.  Though pop artists like Adam Lambert are out and proud, there is no precedent for such a thing in hip-hop.  The quotes placed around the words coming out stem from the fact that he didn't really make a statement of "Yep, I'm gay," so much as he simply revealed that he has been in love with a man.  Time will tell whether this is a transient David Bowie phase, or if it's a legitimate confession of bisexuality.  Either way, for now he has everyone's attention, so the question is does he have something to say?

Luckily for Ocean, that's an area where he doesn't have anything to worry about.  Revelations aside, Channel ORANGE is a wonderful debut.  A friend of mine, remarked that the lyrical complexity will probably take listeners a while to catch on to, and he might be right, but I don't think that it will hinder any initial connection to the material.  He so effortlessly wraps his metaphors in plain prose that you're grooving to it before you're aware of the layers beneath them.  "Sweet Life" plays like a breezy summer jam in the vein of Carl Thomas's "Summer Rain" so you're forgiven if you don't quite catch the existential social commentary just below the surface.  As someone relatively new to the game, songs like "Super Rich Kids [featuring Earl Sweatshirt]" are no surprise.  As a 24-year-old recording artist in Los Angeles, I'm sure he's seen his share of spoiled TFK's whose "maids come around too much," but "parents ain't around enough," he's just one of the precious few actually addressing it.   And that, in a nutshell, is what sets Ocean apart from his contemporaries.  The only draw back to being so thoughtful is that it rarely feels like he's having fun.  But I'm not going to pick nits.

Though he could easily fit into an R&B or Pop format, at heart, Ocean is clearly hip-hop.  It's not hard to imagine an artist like Common rapping the lyrics to "Crack Rock" or "Pyramids."  Sometimes this causes him to lean toward a conversational style of singing that a lot of the current rapper/singers have adopted in recent years, but he fortunately doesn't stray into the whiny, emo register of some other artists (sorry, Drake).  It just makes it all the nicer when he opens up vocally on songs like "Sweet Life"and "Bad Religion," the latter of which could arguably be about unrequited love, or actual religion, or both.  In the closing song, "Forrest Gump" Ocean presents a simple love song to man.  It has a touch of camp to it, but nonetheless feels heartfelt and earnest.

While fun might not be the best adjective to describe Channel ORANGE, don't let that stop it from becoming the album of the summer.  While you're seeped in the seasonal languor, allow the layered subtext to sink in when you're chilling at the family cookout, coasting down the highway, or relaxing on the beach.

Saturday, July 7, 2012


Butterfly Swords is a nearly twenty year-old film finally making it to DVD.  With the all-star cast of martial arts superstars it boasts you would expect there to be more dazzling fight sequences, but this was originally released in 1993, years before films like The Matrix, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero revolutionized the way people do battle on screen.  In Butterfly Swords there are a few good hand to hand fight scenes that showcase the talented martial artists, but there are mostly just whiplash inducing cuts that don't allow the viewer to take in the impact of each move, let alone admire the execution.  In its own hokey way though, the film still manages to be charming, albeit pretty violent (a lot more blood and severed heads than the aforementioned films).  I imagine this is the type of crudely edited film that would inspire a much better Tarantino film.  This is okay since the film doesn't take itself too seriously and the lighthearted way it bounces along with poorly spaced subtitles adds its appeal.  Admittedly it's an acquired taste, I don't think that the average person who might have enjoyed The House of Flying Daggers for instance would find the charm in Butterfly Swords, but fans of Tarantino and old Bruce Lee movies might get a kick out of it.

The plot surrounds two assassins Sister Ko (Michelle Yeoh) and Sing (Tony Leung) from the Happy Forest, who are trying to protect their kingdom from a neighboring group of rebels from Elites Villa...or something.  That part is not really clear, but mainly serves as a backdrop to the real story which is the subplot love quadrangle that includes the two assassins, another assassin Yip (Donnie Yen) and Sing's girlfriend Butterfly (Joey Wang).  Though the three assassins are like siblings, they are not blood relatives. There is a funny flashback sequence explaining how they met and how Sister Ko came to "raise" the younger boys.  As adults however, Sister Ko seems to have formed feelings for Sing and disdain for Butterfly with whom she has to compete for his attention.  They have a bitchy tea party that is one of the films comedic highlights.  Meanwhile, Yip is the one who harbors feelings for Sister Ko, but he's too bashful to act on them.  Unfortunately, the film favors the undercover assassins plot over the love story in terms of resolution, so it doesn't really go anywhere.  It's also interesting to see how far the culture has come in twenty years.  The women fight valiantly as equals to the men, but an unmarried pregnant woman fears being drowned by he townspeople. Yes, the movie is set in the past, but it's something to look at as much as the evolution of the martial arts choreography.