Frank Ocean - Channel Orange

Let’s get this out of the way first: Last week, when Frank Ocean wrote plainly and beautifully about a past relationship, one with someone who shared his gender, it was an act of absolute bravery and inspiration, and a watershed moment for a rap universe that has, in this respect at least, inched toward enlightenment more slowly than the rest of the world. Just about everyone acknowledges this. But, in various shady corners of the internet, I’ve seen speculation that Ocean’s coming-out moment came so close to his album-release date for more cynical reasons. And I don’t think I can emphasize this enough: This speculation is wrong. From the moment we all heard the astonishing 10-minute “Pyramids,” if not before then, we all knew that Channel Orange was going to be something special. The few people who’d been granted access to listening sessions reported back as much. And now Channel Orange is here, dropped onto the internet right around midnight so that we could all experience it together. And yeah, Channel Orange is a special album, an utterly absorbing piece of art. Frank Ocean’s story is a wonderful thing, but the album didn’t need it. The album, in itself, is enough.

When we talk about Frank Ocean, there’s so much context and backstory to consider. There’s his sexuality, which he has admirably resisted labeling even as he discusses it with us. There are his years languishing on the major-label shelf, cranking out works for hire and staying invisible. There’s his emergence as a voice of peace within the anarchic Odd Future crew, an association that only makes sense if you think about everyone involved as kids striving for transcendence. There’s the Weeknd, and last-year’s mini-boom of the so-called PBR&B, and Ocean’s debatable place within it. There’s the fact that you can’t turn on a TV without seeing a movie trailer that uses Frank’s hook on “No Church In The Wild” as background music. Ocean’s only been on the collective radar for about a year and a half, but there are already so many intriguing and fascinating storylines to untangle. But here’s the important part: When Channel Orange is on, those storylines melt away into the ether. The album becomes its own universe, and none of the other stuff matters. That would be a powerful achievement coming from any artist. From one as young and green as Ocean, it’s a revelation. Nostalgia, Ultra. was an announcement of a major talent. Channel Orange is something else. It’s an instant classic, one that creates its own context.

For me, at least, “Bad Religion,” which Ocean performed stunningly on Jimmy Fallon last night, is the album’s finest moment — Ocean’s eye settling on a moment in the back of a cab, which gives him a chance to lament on lost love, debate theology and direction with his driver, wonder where he fits into the world. It’s a devastatingly still and personal song, one that renders personal uncertainty as something so specific that it feels universal.

But all of Channel Orange isn’t as focused on Ocean himself — or, at least, I don’t think it is. For much of the album, he floats into the background, conveying other people’s life situations with empathy and imagination. On “Sweet Life” and “Super Rich Kids,” he turns into a black Bret Easton Ellis, giving voice to the disconnected and drugged-out elite children of Ladera Heights; I love how Earl Sweatshirt deadens his lively flow to stay in character. On “Crack Rock,” he sings about what happens when those kids and those drugs become too well-acquainted, and he does it without judgement. On “Lost,” he’s a disaffected world-traveling drug kingpin — Rick Ross, but with pathos. On “Monks,” he’s completely left the earthly plane, fantasizing about finding nirvana through moshing or fucking.

Musically, Channel Orange doesn’t make a whole lot of references to other pieces of music, like the obvious samples on Nostalgia, Ultra., and I think that’s an artistic decision, not a sample-budget thing. The music here is luxurious and reserved; it bends and swells in ways that don’t immediately grab attention, and even the John Mayer guitar solos fit into the greater whole. When Ocean does reach out to other pieces of music, as when he sings a snatch of Mary J. Blige’s “Real Love” on “Super Rich Kids,” it feels natural to the song — like its characters are seizing on the one thing they can find that actually expresses how they feel. And the album’s musical world is a soft and gentle place, an ideal bed for Ocean’s angelic floating-dove voice. Ocean’s voice is just a wonder: A conversational croon that can express big ideas without making a big deal about them, and it launches into an unearthly falsetto without straining itself.

Now that we’ve heard their respective sophomore efforts, it seems nuts that anyone ever compared Ocean to the Weeknd, a self-styled predatory lothario with a decidedly limited scope. Instead the parallel that makes the most sense is Channel Orange’s strongest competition for album of the year: Fiona Apple’s The Idler Wheel… (Swear to god I though of this comparison before a prominent critic friend Tweeted it.) Ocean, like Apple, disappeared within his brain and came out with an album as richly expressive as it is musically vivid. Both of them take stylistic risks without broadcasting those risks. Both of them are completely in control of their luminous, inimitable voices. And both of them have given us some heavy shit to chew on. After it’s been on repeat for hours, I feel like I’m still just skimming Channel Orange. I can’t wait to dig deeper.

Channel Orange is out now digitally on Def Jam. Stream it here.

Comments (144)
  1. The music of 2012 just got a helluva lot better this morning…

  2. Forrest Gump

  3. ‘Well Frankly when that Ocean so muphuckin good’ – André 3000

  4. Well said. While it’s not a concept album by definition I think there’s definitely a thematic arc that winds through the songs even beyond the obvious “super rich kids”, “sweet life”, “crack rock” vignette.

    It’s all about finding a sense of personal identity at a historical moment where doing so can make you feel less like an individual; about looking at the world around you and treating it like one big person, understanding strengths and weaknesses.

    Shit is deep man.

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  6. For me, 2012 goes like this:

    1. Bloom-Beach House
    2. Channel Orange-Frank Ocean
    3. In Our Heads-Hot Chip
    4. Something-Chairlift
    5. Shrines-Purity Ring
    6. Kill for Love-Chromatics

    but yeah, this is pretty damn amazing.

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  8. LP is a couple of deep listens from being pretty perfect. It ebbs and flows so well. Back half from Pyramids and on is absolutely spectacular.

  9. So stoked that “Thinking About You” made the record. It is gross how many times I listened to that early version, and it is even more gross that I am about to at least double my play count with the new version. Gross.

  10. this makes me thinks a lot of those forward thinking r&b albums of the seventies, like marvin gaye’s what’s going on or stevie wonder’s songs in the key of life. also, it’s just awesome.

  11. That falsetto in Thinkin Bout You….man crush. I’m like a teenage girl here.

  12. Once again, X to the Z knows what I’m talkin about…

  13. Well folks it looks like we’re well on our way to Frank Ocean being in the top three most commented on articles of the week, or however that works. It’s my hope that by weeks end Frankie will have taken all 5 spots which would have to be some sort of record, especially for a R&B artist. Usually he’d have to pee on somebody to get this kind of attention.

    Seriously though this album is the bee’s knees and I’m digging all the positive comments I’ve been reading about it.

  14. Also, the scream in “Sweet Life” (“everyday neighborhood, is goin’ apeshit crazy, UHHAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHH”) is one of my FAVORITE THINGS IN MUSIC EVER

  15. I hear he’s currently dating @devhynes a.k.a Blood Orange (Allegedly they met through Beyonce’s sister Solange, who he writes for.) HOLY POWER COUPLE!

  16. I’m tired of celebrity (or otherwise well-known people) coming out stories being described as “brave and inspirational” or treated as the best thing ever. LGBTQ artists that are out from the start I find to be more brave and more inspirational (unless their discovery/acceptance of their LGBTQ identity was newly realized in the middle of their career).

    Perfume Genius, Xiu Xiu, Owen Pallet, Grizzly Bear – among many others – are more inspirational in my opinion.

    Either way, this sounds like it has promise.

  17. “A conversational croon”
    Well, fuck – that’s a pretty apt description.

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    • I don’t know if you are being sarcastic or trolling (by the looks of your name and fact that this is your first comment with it, probably the latter), but I will help you out with a little recap:

      1. Frank Ocean dropped arguably (I concur) the best R & B album of 2011(It was just a mixtape, too). 2. Frank Ocean has been a songwriter for a few years and is credited for songs by Beiber, Beyonce, and the Throne (EVERYONE here would kill for that resume) 3. Frank Ocean is the only male singer component of Odd Future (Whether you like it or not, they are kind of a big deal. Fox New couldn’t even ignore them.). 4. Frank Ocean was a week or so from releasing his CD when one keen journalist at a listening party (for major publications because his record has been anticipated by a bunch of people) noticed the fact that a few songs substituted the traditional (from a male R & B POV) “she” pronoun for “he” (as if the subject in a few of these songs was male). As rumors began circulating via social media bull**** (twitter) he decided to release the ALREADY PRINTED/PLANNED LINEAR NOTES FOR THIS NEW ALBUM (Channel Orange, if I’ve lost you) to the public.

      If this is one big conspiracy (I highly doubt it, but maybe we will find out in fifty years when the government releases their secrets from this year), then you have to admit that the guy is incredibly smart. However, coming out as gay (to any degree) in a predominantly black music genre is close to career suicide. There are always rumors of gay rappers and R & B singers (Luther Vandross and Trey Songz come to mind) but no one ever fesses up because of the ramifications.

      Pitchfork did an article on NYC’s gay rapper scene earlier this year that was incredibly intriguing. I had never heard of any of them, and I doubt the general public or even underground rap scene were very familiar with them, because they don’t get publicity (and there are some incredibly talented gay emcees. Cakes da Killa and Le1f are my favorites). Even in the underground rap game, I would bet my last dollar that the most commonly used epithet for enemies and rivals is the f-word and some variation on the theme.

      That was a bit of a tangent (although Ocean is associated with Odd Future and they are known for “keeping it real” (male braggadocio, extreme use of the f-word), but going back to my original point, Frank Ocean has cojones grandes for putting his career in jeopardy by being honest. He seemed to be planning on just outing himself to his fans, but the media has a way of running with things (this isn’t a horrible but it does get annoying). I can assure you that there wouldn’t be as big a fuss if the music was mediocre. Your comment might have been sarcastic, but sometimes I am not sure with the way some people comment and etc. on the net.

      • tl;dr
        so i take it you lacked the wherewithal.

      • Dude get off Frank’s dick. We get it, you love him.

        • No, I just have little to zero tolerance for people that post bull**** before reading or assessing an article/situation. While writing my long-ass opinion, I wasn’t completely sure whether or not douchetard was a trap troll account, but now I am certain (and probably owned by you). I know that you didn’t bother to read my other essay a few comments below this one, and I am not going to paraphrase it for you, but I love that you singled me out for being on Frank’s dick. I question it, but I am not easily blinded by controversy and hype surrounding art and my opinion of the record hasn’t really been swayed by those events.

          Now if you accused me of being on Liars’ dicks (or is that a collective dick?), I would admit guilt..Guilty as charged.

  19. Does anyone else suddenly feel like “Novacane” from Nostalgia, Ultra is pretty obviously about a gay guy (at least in terms of who he falls in love with) who’s loved by a girl he realizes is perfect (goes to Berkeley, earns tuition doing porn, wants to be a dentist — what’s not to love?), and who he wants to love back, but he just can’t, even though he appreciates how amazing her love is and really wants to love her back for her own sake? Plus ummm tons of drugs???

    • not at all… on Novacane he feels “numb” to the other girls because he is still obsessed with the first one.

      do people not realize that all the letters in LGBT stand for a different word? I didn’t see anywhere in Franks letter that suggested he has ONLY ever fallen in love with men, just that his first love was towards a man. This doesn’t mean that all his songs about women are insincere or to switch every single gender in all the songs off Nostalgia, Ultra.

  20. he boots a Playstation One on the intro. now that’s Nostalgia, Ultra.

  21. Man, really? Surely at least one of you had to be underwhelmed by this. Is everyone on this site going to just agree with each other? You guys are fucking BORING.

    • Sorry we don’t hold your interest well enough.

    • Haha, I am a bit skeptical that it is a masterpiece like everyone is letting on (people are comparing it to the Miseducation of Lauryn Hill and records from the heights of Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye’s careers), and I don’t think it would be as talked about everywhere without the controversy. That being said, I still believe it is a badass album and bastardizing Brando’s words, “he could be a contender.”

      It will be easier to know (at least for me) its lasting power by the end of the year if D’Angelo and Maxwell release albums this year as the rumors go. They are all pretty different but arguably the torch bearers of that mixture of neo-soul and r & b. Also, Cody f-ing Chesnutt is releasing a record pretty soon (he is more of a hybrid like Ocean). The genre hasn’t been dead by any means, but in terms of crossover appeal and a bridge between new and old, Frank Ocean is doing a pretty damn good job of driving. I mean, from a pop culture perspective, Channel Orange has gone double platinum, and everyone loves being apart of a mass conversation and hyping things up regardless of whether or not they deserves it (arguably, this does). I am on the fence, because I like listening to music without the environment surrounding it even though, sometimes that is as important as the music itself. Like does “A Change Is Gonna Come” hold as much impact if it is released decades later; I think the answer is a complicated yes and no.

      I love it sometimes, but all of this coverage and social media is a blessing and a curse (not just in regards to music). Sure, there is heard mentality, but everyone might actually feel in their heart (and hopefully, mostly ears) that Channel Orange sets the bar for music with R & B DNA (is that a better description, genres make life easier but usually they just suck).

      I should be able to, but I can’t help but feel biased at the fact that my favorite artist, 3 Stacks, featured on the record. That is a co-sign and a half, especially since he doesn’t bestow that privilege on just anyone. Go ahead and rag on me about that Gwen Stefani’s first solo CD, but I would listen to Katie Perry if she had that much personality (and featured Dre and Pharrell).

    • I’m not that bothered by there being such a strong consensus opinion about this album, because, well, it’s the internet. Choose anything, ANYTHING and there’s a near-universal consensus about it being either brilliant or pandering garbage, accompanied by a small yet vocal troupe of contrarians who accuse the opposition of being a bunch of easily-herded hipsters.

      That’s part of the problem with being a “pop culture” person, in that you forfeit your ability to engage with art in an unhurried, organic manner, lest you not be “part of the conversation”, which seems to always be dishearteningly short for music that’s ostensibly so foundation-rocking. I mean, everybody seems to have already forgotten about that “game-changing” Fiona Apple record, which has only been out a few weeks. Most people probably don’t even know it exists.

      As for Frank, after a few listens myself, my snap judgement is that it’s one hell of a record, but it doesn’t feel like a record built for snap judgement. This is life music, where you know it’s always laying in the cut, waiting for those moments when it can pop out and soundtrack your life in a way that makes reality feel just a bit more real. These are songs that deserve to be appreciated sporadically over a 6 – 8 month span, not just gorged on via laptop speaker over the course of a 24 hour bacchanalia. Great music isn’t an end to itself, but a means of augmenting existence, bringing beauty to the drain and mundanity of everyday life. We do it no service by rendering it nothing more than a trendy “lifestyle accessory”, as a cheap and easy form of cultural cache or as cynically experienced tweet-bait.

      • thank you. the most intelligent post on this whole thread. let the album live with you before you declare it the best of the ________ 5 listens in. JESUS!

        • I do think very highly of the album though, but the Fiona Apple comparisons? Who needs them? Blogs. Blogs are who need them. Music shouldn’t be competition. Stop making it that way.

      • Yeah, honestly, that is the best and most sensible post that I’ve read in a long time. Even though my post doesn’t reflect it (poor choice of words and tone on my part), I agree with you. I wish that there weren’t so many superfluous comments in this thread (although they keep it alive), so that yours was closer to the top. Ha, it doesn’t help when I write long-winded essays, either.

    • If you’re so bored by it then why do you comment on *EVERY* Frank Ocean post?

    • “Surely at least one of you had to be underwhelmed by this.”

      I was. I guess I failed to read the 9.5 that Pitchfork gave it before listening to the album. 0_0

  22. I don’t think you can know that coming out right before the album was released was or wasn’t premeditated. But even if he did use extra record sales as motivation for telling the world he loved a man is there anything really wrong with it?

    • the album takes some of the weight off the admission which he fucking deserves. i hope it boosts his record sales because his balls are brass and polish aint cheap.

      but talk is.


    • I have thought to myself the exact same thing, and considered using it in an argument with someone claiming Frank Ocean came out to sell his album.

      I wouldn’t mind living in a culture where, for a decade or two, famous figures’ coming out is perhaps over-celebrated, and met with increased marketability. Once people tire of it, it could transition to a more accepting time where coming out truly won’t be a big deal.

    • Given that he came out by posting something he wrote in December of last year makes one scratch their head and ponder, “Why release it a week before your album?”

      Honestly? I point to “Pyramids” as a main reason this album is blowing up. It is VERY rare to see LOTS of people claim that a 10-minute song is one of their favorites of the year. I love that — long live long songs.

  23. driving home back from a part at midnight is the perfect environment for listening to this album.

  24. That string movement on the Fallon video gets me every time.

  25. Do you think this guy is related to Billy Ocean? If so, do you think he would get out of my dreams and into my car? Bazinga…

  26. P4k gave it a 9.5 and barely even mentioned the musical content.. This is clearly a example of an album’s narrative overhyping the actual music. It’s a good album but not a classic by any means..

  27. is that the video game “journey” in the opening track?

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    • you should listen to the album…

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        • I’m a fan of both The Weeknd & Frank Ocean. But here’s what I think:

          The Weeknd is a one-trick pony, has quite shitty lyrics, but a nice dark thematic mood. It bangs in the whip I guess. Says pseudo-enlightening/tumblr bullshit on his twitter.

          Frank Ocean, an incredible song-writer AND producer, reaches very poignant, honest emotions and makes beautiful music. Sings live better than the Weeknd.

          We’ll be hearing a lot more from Frank Ocean in the future, but I predict that we won’t be hearing much diverse music from The Weeknd.

        • the weeknd eats pieces of shit for breakfast

        • I like the Weeknd too, but let’s be honest, the dude has no idea how to write about anything but partying and everything related to it: drinking, smoking weed, being hungover, fucking. Which is all fine and good, but you’re trying to compare him to a guy that tells stories with his songs, and I think there’s no competition.

  30. Frank and Tyler together on a Channel Oragne physical album exclusive:

    Lots of Frank, dash of Tyler. No opinion, I can’t digest music this quickly.

  31. I’ll listen, but I feel manipulated into listening. It’s not like I know every new band/artist, but like 2 weeks ago this guy comes out, now he’s everywhere- and I ain’t nobody talkin about this dood before 2 weeks ago. Please don’t Lana del Rey with my emotions again, SterReyogum

    • He also created one of the best album/mixtapes of last year- “Nostalgia, Ultra”, was featured twice on Watch the Throne (or had you not heard of Kanye and Jay-Z before 2 weeks ago, either?), and wrote a song for Beyonce that supposedly made her cry when she heard the demos.

      Seems more like you just haven’t been paying attention. Frank has been and is the real deal.

    • about 80% of your posts when I click on your name mention LDR. wtf.

      And yeah, did you get into indie in the winter of 2011 or something?

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  33. What’s all this over an ‘album of note’ for the week. Shouldn’t we be talking about the REAL album of the week; Twin Shadows-Confess??

    • Truth is Frank Ocean probably owes the Dirty Projectors, Twin Shadow and Azealia Banks a big apology. Talk about stealing the spotlight. And deservedly so.

  34. I just made this photo while listening to channel orange, it makes so much sense to me…

  35. Surprised nobody commented on Sweatshirt’s verse yet. Pure Earl fire.

  36. “This shower head feels so amaaaaazin’”

    get it?

  37. This is a pretty dope album, but I just don’t understand the super hype machine behind it. “Super Rich Kids”, “Bad Religion”, “Forrest Gump”, “Lost”, “Sweet Life” are my favorite tracks, but I don’t think there is anything on here that is utterly mind blowing. Some tracks like “Crack Rock”, “Sierra Leone”, and “Pilot Jones” do nothing for me. I However, the uniqueness of his music is refreshing. I still think I might prefer the Weeknd for this type of “alternative R & B” or whatever you want to call it, but it’s still better than most nonsense out right now.

    Liek I posted earlier though, I can’t get enough of “Super Rich Kids”.

    • “Crack Rock” is my favorite track. The writing on it is too much. The line about your family not letting you hold their infant anymore, the ending bit about the crooked cop–it’s all so good.

  38. Too much hype/buzz on this one for me to trust any ya’ll!!

    If one things for sure, Kanye West is a marketing genius.

    • ‘Channel Orange’ is a very strong release, that much is undeniable. I’m finding the hype ever so justifiable with each listen. Let’s please try and give credit where it’s due.

  39. Is it time yet to talk about how shitty it is that this album was released on iTunes before anywhere else?

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