There was little surprise that Frank Ocean would be a recurring name at the top of so many “Best Album of the Decade” recaps. Scroll through just about any of these countdowns, and you’ll see some combination of Blonde and Channel Orange duking it near the top of the list. Every publication’s loyalty seems split: while NME, Esquire, Billboard, and Consequence of Sound opted for Channel Orange, AV Club, Vice, Pitchfork, and Stereogum favored its more experimental successor, Blonde.
When we talk about Channel Orange and Blonde, it is something beyond the simple preference of one over the other. It’s a matter of cinematic value vs. aesthetic maturity, individual songs vs. conceptual clarity, construction vs. deconstruction, AM vs. FM, Paul vs. John, Twitter vs. Instagram, dogs vs. cats…you get the picture.
The origin story of Frank Ocean (born Christopher Breaux) is well-known by now. Raised in New Orleans, relocated via Houston after Katrina, and swooped up by Tyler The Creator and his nascent Odd Future collective while writing songs in LA; then there was the mixtape, the panda mask, the Tumblr note, and the stunning air of mystery he’s managed to shroud himself in, despite the cult-like following he’s amassed.
In many ways, Frank Ocean is the anti-Kanye. He deliberately shies away from the spotlight, keeps his press and social media mutterings to a minimum, and speaks up only when the exigence of the moment is too powerful to ignore. For the role West has played for hip-hop in terms of his fearless trendsetting and bold artistic maneuvering, Ocean has taken on for a new generation of artists.
July 2012 saw the release of the massively anticipated Channel Orange on Def Jam. In retrospect, the orange cover was reminiscent of The Beatles’ “White Album.” But instead of four unique personalities converging in one creative hodgepodge of an opus, this would be the work of one 25-year-old with the help of some key collaborators.
Channel Orange is Ocean’s head-in-the-clouds thesis. Blonde’s critical credentials may have overshadowed it, but Blonde’s aims to deconstruct ‘the song’ are only a result of Channel Orange having already perfected it.
” The songs are Channel Orange’s crowning achievement.”
Sandwiched between “Start” and “End” are fifteen songs. The songs are Channel Orange’s crowning achievement. Each one is a lurid vignette; evoking dreamscapes, aliens on purple planets, monks in mosh pits, stoned ruminations about suburban LA, and oh yeah, Cleopatra. Ocean writes songs that break the mold of the R&B luminaries that came before him. His world no different from the world we all live in: the 21st-century American landscape of cereal commercials, endless mornings spent escaping into a cartoon world, and neon-lit fantasies of Miami, Amsterdam, Tokyo, and Spain.
“Thinkin’ About You” was the first single from Channel Orange and its biggest hit, though it only peaked at 32 on Billboard’s Hot 100. It’s a woozy meditation on an old flame and Frank’s impotence at playing it cool; until he melts away all doubts with his chilling falsetto, because the beach house in Idaho just wouldn’t cut it…
Channel Orange is sequenced like a reflective journey through the TV channel programmed with Frank’s memories and fantasies. You can almost picture him reclining on an Eazy Boy, outfitted in a silk robe and Rising Sun bandana, joint in hand clicking through the sugary jingle of “Fertilizer”, and the shimmering sex-scene of “Sierra Leone”, and settling on “Sweet Life”, which takes the lush psychedelic soul of Stevie Wonder to the domesticated paradise of Ladera Heights.
The next three episodes are druggy tales about rich kids (“Super Rich Kids”), a drug-fueled love affair (“Pilot Jones”), and a crackhead skittering out of control (“Crack Rock”). I’d be remiss to not point out Frank’s effortless knack for layering his music with an arsenal metaphors and double entendres: from the codependency of a pilot to the hitting of stones in glass homes.
But then “Pyramids” hits. It’s one of those songs you didn’t quite believe when you first heard it, and it’s probably the most epic song that Frank will ever make. It wraps together the parallel stories of Cleopatra’s fall from glory and a stripper’s ill-fated love affair with a man who can’t afford her affection anymore.
The album’s second half explores the dreamier side of Frank’s fertile imagination. “Lost” is the snappy tale of a woman flying all over the world as a drug mule for a Versace-clad slinger, while “Monks” is a funky chase scene that cuts through the jungle in a never-ending monsoon. “Pink Matter” is a surreal love-letter to the vagina that features an instant-classic of a verse from Andre 3000 and even a nod to Dragon Ball-Z’s Majin Buu. And then there’s “Forrest Gump” with its bittersweet guitar licks and samples of the football announcers musing over Gump’s speed.
Entire essays could be written about just about every song on this album. But “Bad Religion,” Frank’s coming out letter as told through a confession to a cab driver, is one of the rare songs that can silence a room through the heart-wrenching strain of Ocean’s delivery. Since Channel Orange’s release, Ocean’s been an outspoken advocate for LGBTQ rights, while breaking down barriers for queer artists in R&B, pop, and hip-hop.
Blonde is a Classic, but Channel Orange is Ocean’s Landmark
When Frank Ocean dropped the video for “Nikes”, the lead single off his sophomore effort Blonde, most fans were confounded by the wobbly aesthetic that he’d taken on. The stumbling drum machines and pitched-up vocals of “Nikes” were telling of the overall sonic explorations that would define Blonde as Ocean’s experimental classic. Replete with airy guitars and unexpected bursts of ambient noise, the songs on Blonde deconstruct the song-writing format that Ocean had just as close to mastered with Channel Orange.
Blonde is a further exploration into Ocean’s ability as a postmodern poet; writing songs that meander, break, and coalesce into a staggering work of music that challenges the listener at every turn. The tracks read more as memoir than short fiction, touching on the lure of materialism (“Nikes”), a deteriorating relationship (“Self Control”), and mortality in the eye of destruction (“Pink & White”).
But despite Ocean’s experiments in atmosphere and structure, the world he first unveiled through Channel Orange remains the ultimate blueprint to Frank as an songwriter and artist. Where Blonde pinpoints the sound of an artist retreating into his memories and past loves, Channel Orange elicits parables from its songs that are more telling to how Ocean sees the world at large. Ocean’s worldview on Channel Orange is so vivid and invigorating that it’s hard to put down at first; and always refreshing to pick back up after some time away from it.
Channel Orange’s legacy is bound to live on much like Kanye’s College Dropout or Late Registration’s: a time capsule of the artist at the genesis of his first major creative outpouring. So as the decade comes to a close, Channel Orange stands as the most indispensable album in Ocean’s catalogue, one that will remain at the heart of whatever he makes; and the one that inspired innumerable artists to break the mold of whatever format they were meant to fit into. Ocean will never make an album like this again, probably for the better.