It might be hard to accurately depict the extent of Frank Ocean mania leading up to July 2012. I absolutely discounted Ocean going into this Summer. All I really cared about at that moment was Tyler the Creator and Earl Sweatshirt, two fascinating rappers of considerable skill who guised as level headed teenagers. “Yonkers” was still fresh enough for replays and for a short while, in addition to the progressive music Odd Future was producing, it seemed that the ironic violence and murder stories adherent to the early 2000’s would continue to be the driving force behind hip hop’s thematic evolution.
There also seemed to be an ulterior driving stylistic revolution happening in the West Coast. L.A. at this point was going through a turnover period as a cultural juggernaut. It was queerer, had gained a new voice as an intellectual hub, and the influence of Kanye revived Japanese culture on fashion and media was omnipresent. The stage was set.
I couldn’t give two shits about Frank Ocean. I found his hook on “No Church in the Wild” to be flaccid and Nostalgia, Ultra went directly over my head. I think I had heard someone refer to him as the “Nate Dogg of Odd Future,” a mislabeling which plateaued my interest. I was all about Section.80 and “The Recipe” had just dropped in April which was sort of the affirmation of everything we had hoped for in Kendrick. I couldn’t be bothered.
The influx of Frank Ocean news going into June could only be described as abrupt. Announcing his record on the eighth, as soon as we heard that there would be a queer star in either hip hop or R&B, something that had yet to exist, my ears perked. The de facto sound of pop at the time was going to receive the first new perspective in what seemed like decades.
Suddenly news outlets began pouring out any information they could find on this guy and everything that Frank Ocean had done up until that point with new context screamed "ahead of its time." Ocean’s autobiographical portrayal as a Black man whose unrequited love haunted his adulthood was five years before Moonlight. His disillusionment with material wealth and activation in the work force as an AT&T salesman was six years before Sorry to Bother You. It was also 12 years after The Marshall Mathers LP, the renaissance period Eminem album that dominated the album charts and uses “faggot” and “slut” a collective 50 times. Ocean was entering a space where homophobia, misogyny, and shutting the fuck up about your feelings were basically standards & practices.
Watching Ocean come out on Tumblr and belting out “Bad Religion” five days later on a dimly lit stage at the top of his lungs was like watching a fucking bomb go off. channel ORANGE would have to be an OK Computer-level sprawling epic to satisfy expectations and it honestly delivered. Like Radiohead, Ocean made a concept album that explores sex, identity, community, wealth, pop culture and nostalgia ultimately unified by the presence of city and era. The emotional range of a double album in 17 songs. It’s Abbey Road in 55 minutes.
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You couldn’t pin it down to genre. It was categorized as alternative neo-R&B, a genre that was seemingly created to market Ocean and other artists like Miguel and Jai Paul that had more in common with Tame Impala and Midnite Vultures than “Return of the Mack.” It was Beatle-esque psychedelic pop in its boundless avenue for ideas and non-offensive experimentation..and range – its sometimes exuberant sometimes tragic look at love and sex and life and occupations.
The Frank Ocean moment and the absolute strength of his album marked the beginning of a revolution in pop music that was predicated on introspection, large soundscapes, and event rollouts. The modern pillars of the genre, Lorde, Billie Eilish, Lil Nas X, Kehlani, Shamir, Syd, Halsey, and Kevin Abstract all seem to be borrowing plays from the book of Ocean. It extends beyond music.
In 2021, it’s become obvious that Frank Ocean was at the forefront of the cultural reset we were about to experience in the mid-2010s. This cannot be overstated and is crucial to understanding what makes channel ORANGE classic. It’s a different album now. After changing the format and landscape again with Blonde, Ocean has reached a sort of ethereal stature. The conversation is now dominated by the extent of his seclusions and frequent cancellations, two indications of the intense demand for his music.
Frankly, I say this as the guy who started SMACK: we fucked up when we called The Money Store the best album of the 2010s. I realized this two weeks ago when I put on channel ORANGE after years in the vault. It really is a whirlwind of an experience, a lot of it sung back to the stereo. There’s parts you dance to, there’s parts you cry to, he’s got like seven different types of love songs and then you get to “Forrest Gump” and it’s over... you don’t realize you’ve just gotten off the freeway.
So get back on. Join us today for a few more of the many reasons why channel ORANGE is one of the best albums in recent memory.
Front to Back it Today.
The rise of Frank Ocean is the stuff of legends.
I was there. I was literally there in 2012 which is going to be a hard year to explain to people if you didn’t read pitchfork or COMPLEX or had a close friend who read either and would give you the goods. We were kind of bored; aside from indie and Kanye it seemed pretty dry out there. Pop music had been exhausted through a few waves and we were in need of something that didn’t play directly to radio. As long as it was somewhat progressive, anything done during this time might have been pioneering.
In came Frank Ocean’s album in July and Kendrick Lamar’s studio debut in October, literally shocking an industry that was in bad need of new blood and completely revising their genres to a point of new legitimacy.
Around June when Ocean started unveiling the album at listening parties, outlets started questioning the record’s frequent sexual allusions, much of it directed towards a male. Ocean had originally planned on releasing an open letter expressing his sexual identity in the CD’s liner notes. Instead in what would become one of the iconic cultural moments of the era, he published a TextEdit file on his Tumblr blog that he wrote in December 2011. The letter recalled his unrequited feelings for a man when he was 19 years old that Ocean calls his first love. Def Jam publicly supported the letter, CNN covered the story, and blogs ate up what seemed like a dreamlike promotional junket. The remarkable thing was that their was actual music to back up the story.
The industry came running. After Kanye West got a whiff of Ocean during the Watch the Throne sessions he tried to jump on ORANGE immediately. He didn’t mind being rejected as Ocean opted for total control of his debut, while West helped Frank by connecting him with “visual people.”
It did not slow down for Ocean, who spent the rest of the decade doing whatever the hell he wanted at his own frequency. He kept collaborations seldom and material tight developing a reputation as one of if not thee most important artist of his generation.
The ambitious production on channel ORANGE renders a classic. It does not happen without Malay, Ocean’s friend and multi-instrumentalist producer. The basis for the album came from the two of them jamming and tossing around each other’s ideas with Ocean acting as principal songwriter and Malay as sonic architect.
He was there from the very beginning and much of Channel ORANGE was created off of Malay’s beats. Ocean had only changed his stage name from Lonny Breaux a year or so prior to beginning work on ORANGE and Nostalgia, Ultra was released just one month into writing.
Him and Ocean were oblivious to how fast things were happening around them. Malay told COMPLEX that he was unaware of Ocean’s sexuality throughout recording and attributed it to poetic license rather than self-expression or role reversal.
It’s gotta be the album performance of the decade. Ocean’s work ethic along with his intensive standards resulted in spectacular takes and his skillset as a vocalist is nothing short of enormous: he can sing, falsetto, baritone, croon, rap, talk, adlib, solo, and does all his own backing. His versatility is absolutely key to the success in what the album promises to do: offer all of the colours of the spectrum.
It was also positioned neatly in an era preceded by artists like Amy Winehouse and Kanye West where you could be unabashed in who you were ripping off and still come off as totally original. Ocean’s falsetto drew quick comparisons to D’Angelo which evolved into conversations about Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Sly Stone, and even Bruce Lee. Still, everything that came out of Channel ORANGE was inherently Frank…some coy aloof tall shadowy figure from Sunset that consumes weird movies from the 90’s and stares at Manga who can write a song about practically anything. That’s not Prince, that is Frank Ocean ladies and gentlemen.
Ocean’s power as a lyricist positions him if anything as some kind of spiritual successor to his idol Bob Dylan. He takes the same meandering structures, phonetic ability, surrealistic imagery, pop appreciation… the same abstract contemporary references and understanding of locale, but again it’s through the lens of Frank. It’s Dylan in the Supreme store singing about Pokémon to Ice Cube’s “It Was a Good Day” which is playing out of someone’s car 30 feet away.
In an era where an instrument was relegated to a stem file, Frank Ocean reinvented what could be done with the human vox.
How did Frank Ocean capture the hearts of millions, becoming the quintessential songwriter of his generation? Nostalgia, not as a forgettable gimmick or even a musical device but as a philosophy that informs his work. Whether he is reminiscing, yearning, or wincing at the past, Frank has mastered the ability to access how the era of his youth affects him emotionally. channel ORANGE does not emulate the past-- it reckons with it.
Many interpretations have been made about what the interludes which sample film dialogue and found sounds mean to the record. Given the importance channel ORANGE places on his memory, these interludes could be seen as a way of actually transplanting ourselves into Frank's mind Being John Malkovich style-- hearing the miscellaneous noise that occupies his mind rent-free. It's these muddled, blink and you might miss it sounds that tips the listener off on how he references pop culture.
He's not being subliminal, though subtlety is crucial Ocean’s charm. When Frank croons "the Black Beverly Hills" on "Sweet Life", we may not instantly think of Tim Roth's character from Reservoir Dogs, but our Tarantino brain is activated. He does it so well that he becomes attached in our minds to the cultural emblems he is using in his music. Whether it's cults, clothes, cars, or Cleopatra, a phantom Frank is left in the wake of every piece of pop culture he pillages; I have a sudden urge to throw on "Bad Religion" every time someone tells me I've drank the Kool-Aid.
"Bad Religion" finds Frank in a place where he feels rejected by his culture, his God, and his lover because of his sexuality. Rejection can make the world come crashing down upon us. The sound of the strings needed to be epic in scope, melancholic but also cathartic-- the kind of catharsis that comes from accepting yourself.
Frank draws from these scraps of the zeitgeist that he grew up on in order to make songwriting topics that are very personal more palatable as a listener. Appealing to his generation's obsession with Dragon Ball Z on "Pink Matter" makes it easier for us to understand his sexual infatuation. He also knows the perfect instrumental backdrop for the memory he is trying to access.
channel ORANGE uses the past as way to weave itself into the listener's life. It is familiar. Not because of the tradition of 70s progressive soul that it decides to champion, but because of it's understanding of the power of nostalgia and memories. No matter when you listen to it, it's only a matter of time until Frank manages to trick you into thinking it was always there to begin with.
Ocean made hundreds of thousands of dollars writing songs for other people. It’s how he afforded that slick beamer. He was absolutely miserable. It was around this time that he met Odd Future who he considered “like-minded” and convinced Ocean to release Nostalgia Ultra independently on his own dollar.
It’s honestly kind of too bad because a lot these slap not surprisingly:
John Legend, "Quickly" (2008)
Brandy, "1st & Love" (2008)
Justin Bieber, "Bigger" (2009)
The Internet, "She DGAF" (2011)
Beyoncé, "I Miss You" (2011)
Conor Maynard, "Pictures" (2012)
Brandy, "Scared of Beautiful" (2012)
Alicia Keys, "One Thing" (2012)
The album’s title is a reference to synesthesia, the colour Ocean sensed during the summer of his first love which provides the thematic basis for the record.
channel ORANGE was released one week early to combat leaks with anticipation built off of splashy appearances on Goblin and Watch the Throne; the strength of “Swim Good” and “Novacaine;” and an instantly iconic performance of “Bad Religion” on The Tonight Show.
The album debuted at number two to Linkin Park’s Living Things.
To downplay himself from being "the focal point" of the album, Ocean did not want his name on the cover and had Everest, his Bernese Mountain Dog, credited as the executive producer instead.
Ocean worked eleven jobs before getting connected to Def Jam and Jay-Z through Tricky Stewart in 2009, some of which included Subway sandwich artist and Allstate claims processor.
Ocean intended for a Big Boi feature on “Pink Matter” to complete an Outkast reunion to the rejection of Andre 3000. Three Stacks also plays the guitar solo at the song’s closing.
Stephen Soderbergh’s sprawling crime epic on the war on drugs Traffic was the basis for “Super Rich Kids.”
“Thinkin’ Bout You” was intended for r&b singer Bridget Kelly.
"Crack Rock" was inspired by stories he heard sitting in on Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous groups mentored by his grandfather.
channel ORANGE was recorded in continuity. After writing the songs for the record in two weeks, Ocean finalized the sequence and then recorded the album in strict order of track list.
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