The first time Christopher Edwin Breaux — the artist now known as Frank Ocean — fell in love, he was 19 years old. It was the summer, and everything was orange.
On July 10, 2012 — 10 years ago this Sunday — a then 24-year-old Ocean released his debut album, Channel Orange, to rave reviews. Ocean had emerged as a member of Odd Future, a Los Angeles-based artist collective comprising Tyler, The Creator, Earl Sweatshirt, and Syd, among others, but Channel Orange marked Ocean’s foray beyond the group into a realm all his own. Earl was notably the only member of the Wolf Gang to appear on Channel Orange, and its sound was even more of a marked departure from the baseline Odd Future template than Ocean’s Nostalgia, Ultra mixtape had been the year before. A hugely ambitious collection, the album deftly amalgamates elements of R&B, rap, electronic, and hip-hop, creating a sound that is uniquely Ocean’s own and would go on to influence countless R&B musicians from SZA to Solange. Though 2016’s Blonde has arguably eclipsed it in terms of influence and prestige, there’s a playfulness to Channel Orange, a breezily joyful experimentation, that draws me back again and again.
On tracks like “Lost” (resurrected years later as a TikTok sensation) and “Thinkin Bout You,” Ocean proves he’s able to deliver a hit — the combination of sway-inducing percussion and relatable lyrics is catchy but avoids feeling formulaic. But just as Ocean shows us he’s fully capable of delivering what we expect, he reveals that he’s more interested in subverting our expectations altogether. “Pyramids” is a 10-minute cautionary tale about the disrespect Black women face around the world, starting with Cleopatra and progressing to the modern day. On “Forrest Gump,” Ocean uses the 1994 movie of the same title as a vehicle to speak about unrequited feelings for his first love, putting himself in the shoes of the film’s female protagonist. His choice of features on the album also showcases his peculiar musical sensibilities; it’s safe to say no one was expecting acoustic singer-songwriter John Mayer (who later played “Pyramids” with Ocean on SNL) to make an appearance, draping guitar melodies into the interlude “White.” A “Pink Matter” feature from André 3000 — who had largely stopped making music after OutKast disbanded in 2006, and whose seeming disinterest in anyone else’s timeline preceded Ocean’s own long stretches of radio silence — was a surprising treat.
Channel Orange is a fantastic album, but it’s also challenging; several of the songs break so far from musical tradition that they take several listens to understand. Thankfully, listeners were up for the challenge. Ten years later, what remains is not only the legacy of the music but the myth around it, and of Ocean himself: that an artist can be as weird as he wants, as queer as he wants, and make music on his own terms.
Unsurprisingly, orange is a recurring lyrical and sensational motif across the album. Ocean has spoken about his synesthesia, a condition where stimulation of one of the senses can lead to involuntary stimulation of another — for example, some people with the condition may claim to hear colors or see sounds. In Ocean’s case, Channel Orange, which chronicles the summer when he first fell in love, takes its title both from the condition and the color that tinted his days during this time. Listeners can feel orange’s influence in the lyricism and imagery of several songs in the collection, particularly as Ocean describes Los Angeles’ unrelenting heat. “She wash my back three times a day, this shower head feels so amazing,” Ocean raps on “Super Rich Kids.” On “Lost,” he sings of a girl who is “lost in the heat of it all.” To listen to Channel Orange is to sweat, to feel the bright orange heat of the California sun.
That Ocean saw orange when he first fell in love — not the familiar glow of red or pink’s commercial, Valentine sheen — can at first be read as a part of his anti-traditionalist nature. But interestingly, the color has been cited in the history of queer desire for decades. I’m reminded of Jeanette Winterson’s classic 1985 autobiographical novel, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, which depicts the young protagonist’s (also named Jeanette) struggle with lesbianism in the Pentecostal church. In the book, Jeanette’s mother gives her an orange whenever she is upset, causing her to crave the fruit in times of struggle; but when her mother discovers she has slept with another woman, she stops giving her daughter oranges, leaving her to self-soothe. Here, the orange is a reward for remaining closeted, and in coming into her queerness, Janette resolves to eat forbidden fruit instead. “Close to the heart is a sundial and at the heart an orange tree,” Winterson writes. “To eat of the fruits means to leave the garden because the fruit speaks of other things, other longings.” In more recent years, the Netflix series Orange Is The New Black was a platform for queer and sapphic longing.
Ocean remains a firm nonconformist, and his refusal to adhere to conventions, both sonically and within the music industry, is present in every aspect of Channel Orange’s production and release. Days before the album came out, the singer took to his Tumblr to post a two-paragraph letter detailing his first love with another man. “On the days we were together,” penned Ocean in unsurprisingly poetic prose, “time would glide.” Ever a storyteller, Ocean refused to give his audience an easy narrative; rather than presenting a palatable queer love, he spoke plainly about heartache and unrequited feelings, at one point comparing the relationship to “being thrown from a plane.” Those same sentiments informed the aching and impassioned “Bad Religion,” performed with the Roots on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon the night of the album’s release. “This unrequited love/ To me, it’s nothin’ but a one-man cult/ And cyanide in my styrofoam cup/ I can never make him love me,” Ocean sang — a rare instance in those days of a man longing for another man on network television.
A lot has changed in 10 years; in an era where Lil Nas X rocketed to fame while kissing other men in his music videos and artists like Harry Styles are accused of co-opting queer aesthetics for clout, it may be difficult to understand why Ocean’s coming out was significant. But in 2012, that an artist like Ocean — young, male, Black, relatively unknown — would preempt his debut album release by announcing his queerness was unheard of. He seemed to enjoy undermining the unspoken social and professional rules of the music industry — perhaps out of principle, good-natured fun, or some combination of the two. “‘Pyramids’ is a ten minute long single. I trolled the music industry,” he tweeted shortly after the song’s release.
It’s this boyish rebellion, this laissez-faire creative freedom, that draws listeners to Ocean and garners him respect within the industry and outside it. In spite of it all, Ocean seems genuinely committed to living life and making art on his own terms. We see this in the way he engages with the public: Despite his early Tumblr presence illustrating a clear knowledge of the internet, the artist has steered clear of social media for years, a move that cemented his anti-celebrity status. “My art speaks for itself,” he told New York Times Magazine in 2013.
On Channel Orange, Frank Ocean did so much, and took so many by surprise, that the album’s legacy will continue to live on no matter how much new music he releases. The prolific music writer Hanif Abdurraquib perhaps said it best in a 2016 review for MTV: “When I hear and read and talk about Channel Orange now, it barely sounds like an album, more like a machine of inevitable greatness.” Channel Orange is great — musically, thematically, undeniably — and its oddities and idiosyncrasies only contribute to that greatness. Though the album captured one summer, 10 years later listeners can still sit back and enjoy the view through Ocean’s hazy orange glow.