CD Special – Channel Orange, by Frank Ocean

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Released July 10, 2012

1 hr, 2 min, 18 sec

Channel Orange is a masterpiece.

That’s the first thought that popped into my mind, the first time I finished the album. From “Start” to “End,” this is an album put together so meticulously, so thoughtfully, that very little of it ever feels out of place. Frank Ocean noted in an interview that he had the track list laid out before he even started recording; not a single song was moved, from that initial track list to the final product sitting on my desk.

I vividly remember where I was when I first came across Ocean’s music – in my father’s house, spending the summer in Georgia. I came across the song “Pyramids” before the album came out, and was immediately dragged in by the ambition and scope of the track’s production. I remember the day Ocean came out, the waves it made in the R&B and hip-hop scenes. I remember thinking “this man is the future.”

We’ll talk a little bit more about the circumstances surrounding the album in a bit. For now, the music.

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Channel Orange sits comfortably in the R&B spectrum, with large swathes of hip-hop across it as well, some from Ocean himself, some from his few vocal collaborators scattered across the tracks. Ocean’s voice is hypnotic, with a startling amount of range, able to go from deep, full baritone to falsetto within a single line. The album takes its time with song, only a few of them ramping up the tempo, with great effect as a result.

The album’s production is stellar, with the beats for every track composed by Malay, who worked closely with Ocean throughout the entire process of writing and recording. Though generally an R&B album, the songs take influences from a wide range of other genres, such as funk, soul, pop, and psychadelic music. Each song feels like its own album, though none of them feel like they don’t belong on the same album. Several interludes mediate the album’s pace, characterizing each one’s subsequent track. Ocean’s lyrics provide the primary connecting thread through the album, with common themes of unrequited love (particularly for Ocean), drug use and drug abuse, and the consequences of a decadent lifestyle. Channel Orange often feels like it goes against the grain in a world and genre that frequently glorifies the very things that the album vilifies; it provides a breath of fresh air. Ocean’s storytelling comes to a peak in “Pyramids,” where he uses a lengthy metaphor surrounding Cleopatra and relates it to the experience of working as a stripper for a living.

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The album’s features are few and far between, and Ocean chose them wisely. Fellow Odd Future member Earl Sweatshirt continues his resurgence on “Super Rich Kids,” while John Mayer lends his distinctive guitar tones to both “Pyramids” and “White,” though he is uncredited on the former. Andre 3000 appears on “Pink Matter”; Ocean initially reached out to both Andre and Big Boi, but Andre refused to have OutKast reunite on another artist’s song. Big Boi later released a version of the track featuring both himself and Andre in 2013. Another member of Odd Future, Tyler, the Creator, appears at the very end of the album.

Ocean pulled from his own experiences for many of the song, using stories he heard in Narcotics Anonymous as a child (accompanying his grandfather, who mentored at many session) for songs like “Crack Rock” and “Pilot Jones,” while drawing on his own turbulent love life for the album’s most poignant track, “Bad Religion.”

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Here, we get to a major topic surrounding the album as it approached its release date. Producer Malay noted in an interview that he was curious about the pronouns Ocean used in “Bad Religion” when speaking of his unrequited love (specifically, male ones), but chose not to bring it up, considering it to simply be artistic license. However, on July 4, Ocean posted on Tumblr a letter he’d written in December 2011, intended to premiere in the liner notes of Channel Orange:

Whoever you are, wherever you are..I’m starting to think we’re a lot alike. Human beings spinning on blackness. All wanting to be seen, touched, heard, paid attention to. My loved ones are everything to me here. In the last year or 3 I’d screamed at my creator. Screamed at the clouds in the sky. For some explanation. Mercy maybe. For peace of mind to rain like manna somehow. 4 summers ago, I met somebody. I was 19 years old. He was too …”

The part that I stopped at is what made waves in the industry. For sure, there were non-heterosexual individuals in the industries of R&B and hip-hop, but those were still genres that were traditionally not too accepting of the LGBTQ+ community, and for an artist as prominent and prevalent as Ocean to come out as bisexual was huge. Many huge figures in the industry immediately got behind Ocean, including Quincy Jones and Ocean’s record label, Def Jam. Additional prominent supporters of Ocean were his partners and collaborators in the hip-hop collective Odd Future, a group whose members were (and still are) frequently criticized for perceived homophobia and bigotry in their lyrics. Ocean himself does not associate with Odd Future frequently; indeed, his career seems to have taken him far above the rest of the collective.

“Bad Religion” and “Forrest Gump” are the two tracks most openly influenced by Ocean’s sexuality, though “Thinkin Bout You” comes from the same place. These two tracks take different stances; “Bad Religion” is powerful and heartbreaking, as Ocean pours out his feelings to a cab driver who presumably understands very little of what Ocean is saying, while “Forrest Gump” is playful and satirical, using the title character as an inspiration for the song’s lyrics. The two songs together paint a complex picture, because love is a complex subject, especially when society, in general, tells you that your sexuality and what you’re feeling isn’t “right” or “natural.” “Bad Religion” and Channel Orange are important as potential vehicles for change, as much as they are a catharsis for Ocean, who noted that the album’s release and his coming out helped wipe out the depression he’d been suffering from for years. The album’s title and distinctive orange color scheme both come from the summer Ocean described, as Ocean experiences the phenomenon of synesthesia, and he associates the color orange with that summer.

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Ocean took influence from Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch the Throne in releasing the album, abruptly releasing it through iTunes a week before the physical release date, in order to thwart any potential leaks of the album once it was shipped out. The physical album, however, has an extra incentive for purchase in the form of a hidden bonus track, coming after the conclusion of “End,” titled “Golden Girl” and featuring Tyler, the Creator, of Odd Future.

The album’s promotion, however, suffered from Ocean’s enigmatic personality and bad luck; he toured for just one month in 2012, canceling several festival dates after his voice blew out, never returning to make them up, and he has played only a few shows since, staying in seclusion after the 2013 Grammys. He occasionally reblogs and posts things on his Tumblr page, including a snarky public response to accusations by Chipotle that he pulled out of a recording deal with them.

His live performances, however, are great, when they happen. Two that stand out for me are his performance of “Bad Religion” on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon prior to the album’s release, and his performance of “Forrest Gump” to close out the 2013 Grammys. In the latter case, an entire video was filmed for the performance, where Ocean stood in a waist-high booth, surrounded by screens that gave the impression of him running, while he performed the song. The backdrop featured a group of people heading down a deserted, empty street, with Ocean in front; when the song ended, Ocean turned to face the screen and disappeared behind it, as the video showed him doing the very same thing on the screen.

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Though the album is very much a product of 2012, it also suffers from being released in the musical climate we are currently experiencing. Despite topping nearly every major year-end list and being widely considered the greatest album of 2012, Channel Orange has just barely received gold RIAA certification, having sold around 621,000 copies since its release in July 2012. That’s terrible. That’s disappointing. This album needs to be heard by everyone, because it is truly a work of art.

Worse still, Ocean and Channel Orange suffered several snubs at the 2013 Grammy Awards (I know, I know), including losing out Best New Artist to fun., a band that has literally existed since 2008 and released their debut album in 2009, over three years before they won a Grammy for Best New Artist. Granted, that comes down to the Grammys’ dumb definition of what a “new artist” is, that is overcentralized on an artist’s Grammy accolades, but it’s still ridiculous. Ocean only went home with two Grammys after being nominated for five; one of those nominations wasn’t even for Channel Orange, instead sharing it with Jay-Z and Kanye West for the track “No Church in the Wild,” from the 2011 album Watch the Throne. Channel Orange‘s only Grammy came in the form of “Best Urban Contemporary Album.”

“Urban Contemporary.” If that isn’t a completely manufactured genre that means absolutely nothing, I don’t know what is. Thanks, Grammys. Ocean deserved Best New Artist, at the very least. Record of the Year? Fine. Album of the Year? Fine. But Best New Artist was him. No fucking contest.

Anyway.

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Channel Orange is one of my favorite albums, and one of the greatest “full-package” albums I’ve ever listened to. There’s not a single misstep to be found, even with the album losing just a bit of steam after “Pyramids” and before “Bad Religion.” The album deserves every accolade it received, and more. Ocean put up a hell of a hurdle to jump over for his next album, which has yet to materialize, two years removed from Channel Orange. I’m confident in him, because very few artists in pop music demonstrate the genius in composition that Ocean does. More than most, Ocean is truly a one-of-a-kind musician, and he has a long, lucrative career ahead of him.

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3 thoughts on “CD Special – Channel Orange, by Frank Ocean

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