By: Wylie Feaster
A quick confession to help move this review along: Frank Ocean is my favorite musical artist of all time. I have a laptop sticker with his face on it, a Blonde hat, and his first album, Channel Orange, the one that we will be dissecting today, was the first piece I posted on my music account on Instagram. Oh, and I wrote a college supplement about him and this album for Washington University in St. Louis — hey, it was strong enough to get me on the waitlist so that was something in and of itself.
With an album as elusive and layered as Ocean himself, Channel Orange wastes no time in diving into its most enigmatic theme: love. Yet, the question doesn’t become what Frank Ocean loves, but how he expresses said emotion: ardently, recklessly, yet knowingly with the passion of an infatuated teenager and unadulterated wisdom beyond his generation. In 2012, Frank Ocean wrote a letter on Tumblr expressing that his first time falling in love was with a man:
Sleep I would often share by him. By the time I realized I was in love, it was malignant. It was hopeless. There was no escaping, no negotiating with the feeling. No choice. It was my first love, it changed my life…He patted my back. He said kind things. He did his best, but he wouldn’t admit the same. He had to go back inside soon, it was late and his girlfriend was waiting for him upstairs. He wouldn’t tell the truth about his feelings for me for another 3 years. (Ocean)
Spread out across the entirety of the album, Ocean laments about that very same doomed romance. Take “Bad Religion,” the soulful centerpiece of the LP, for example. Ocean sings:
“This unrequited love / To me it’s nothing but / A one-man cult / And cyanide in my styrofoam
cup / I could never make him love me.” With echoes of profound greats that came before him,
like Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, his romantic tragedy, unraveling through many
impassioned ballads and digital piano synths, links Ocean to something of an older tradition. To
say the least, he is wise beyond his years, both as a musician and as a human.
Again, to Ocean’s credit, he is an individual, with no real analogue in R&B, or anywhere else in today’s pop culture world. A recluse by nature, in more ways than one, world-building and a precise sense of place are not new concepts for the 31-year old: his tales are laid out in decadent, sun-kissed L.A, an environment teeming with privileged slackers in “Super Rich Kids” (“Super rich kids with nothing but loose ends / Super rich kids with nothing but fake friends”), unemployed guys mooching off of their stripper girlfriends in “Pyramids,” lovelorn nobodies who pour their hearts out to Muslim cab drivers in “Bad Religion.” He tells stories using his soothing, yet nuanced voice, with a social consciousness that surfaces all of the heartbreaking details: the father in “Sierra Leone” who sings his infant daughter to sleep while thinking, “Baby girl, if you knew what I know,” the addict in “Crack Rock” whose family has “stopped inviting you to things / Won’t let you hold the infant.” In “Pink Matter,” which features a guest verse from Outkast’s Andre 3000, Ocean fuses these sounds into a gorgeous bluesy lament that incorporates sex, betrayal, alien life, Japanese cartoons, and philosophical epiphanies into its musical fabric. “What do you think my brain is made for?” Ocean sings. “Is it just a container for my mind? / This is great gray matter.”
Occasionally, Ocean drifts into a period of slackness and self-indulgence, but I think that is what gives this album so much character. Nobody is perfect, especially when faced with the complexities of a doomed romance. During these transitions, he becomes less of a songwriter than a purveyor of formless grooves; his lyrics slowly dissolve into a form that is slightly digestible and all the more out there (“Feet covered in cut flowers / They mosh for enlightenment / Clean chakra good karma.”) Hippie, no? However, when he reels himself in, and packs his songs together more tightly, their themes and messages hit with a startling force. Probably the most well-known song on Channel Orange, “Thinkin Bout You,” states, “You know you were first time, a new feel / It won’t ever get old, not in my soul…Do you think about me still?… ‘Cause I been thinkin’ bout forever.” I can’t sit here and write this without telling you how much this album moved me, both physically around my room and mentally across the more emotionally driven parts of my mind. This album has dominated much of my musical upbringing during the past year and a half, and I only have Frank to thank. So, thank you. Channel Orange is an anthem for anyone, anywhere, who’s found love, and lost it. I have fallen in love with this album, and I know it will never leave me.
Fun Fact: Frank Ocean wrote Channel Orange in only two weeks.