We’ve got a big article ahead of us, so I’ll keep my introduction short and sweet: within the r’n’b boom of the 2010s, few voices stand out as truly exceptional and instantly recognizable. One of them is Frank Ocean, whose 2012 début full-length album channel ORANGE cemented him as an enigmatic, charismatic artist with nigh-limitless potential. Talking about channel ORANGE and its themes, achievements, and potential trappings will be David, Dan, and Dylan (or Triple D, as the former asked me to refer to them).
Dylan Nicole Lawson
Frank Ocean was always an artist I just felt in love with from the first time I ever heard “Novacane”. It was wild seeing him break away from the whole OFWGKTA, which I was also admittedly very into the Odd Future stuff for awhile, but truthfully, it was great seeing each one of them branch out on their own. Virtually every member involved in that group seemed to have some level of prowess about their craft, but Frank was unarguably and outlier. In my opinion a master of hooks with truly angelic vocals, it was no surprise that channel ORANGE gained significant traction, especially in its time.
channel ORANGE features plenty of incredible tracks, but as both a hit and immediately recognizable tune, “Thinkin Bout You” is truly a timeless classic. Even by today’s standards in popular, Top 40s music, and with how trends and what’s considered ‘groundbreaking’ has drastically changed, it seems as though this song in particular has not lost its touch in the least. The album has a fine mix of emotional, dreamy, almost romantic-like elements to it, as well as a dark, dreary, and sometimes gritty edge. As such, it’s hard to deny this one a rightful place in being one of the greatest modern r’n’b/soul and pop albums of all time. Frank really set the tone when he graced the world with such a strong debut title.
I was a lot younger when channel ORANGE dropped – a full ten years younger, in fact. Maybe I just wasn’t as cognizant then as I was now, but I really feel like none of us were ready for it when it dropped. Frank Ocean, the dude that ran with those rowdy-as-fuck Odd Future kids, can sing? Well yeah, didn’t you hear his single “Swim Good” or his entire 2011 debut mixtape nostalgia,ULTRA? He can rap, too.
From where I stand, the only bad thing that came from channel ORANGE is that it was so good, so widely acclaimed, it deified Frank, or rather, his fans did that because of this album. This is, by and large, a bad thing. For him, you can’t spell ‘fanatical’ without ‘fan’, and his always seem to skirt the lines of decency and reason when it comes to (im)patiently waiting for new music or, really, any news that he’s still around and active. He’s a private person all things considered, so I imagine this is… not ideal.
Now, on the other hand, I get it, even if I don’t agree with it. Frank as a person and an artist was a big fucking deal around this time. Not only was he a nearly unparalleled artist, but he quickly became an LGBTQ+ icon and a wonderful example of feeling, kinder masculinity in the modern world that still frequently berates and demonizes emotional men, especially ones who are queer. Though he eschews the labels and boxes, both of musical genre and sexuality, he’s clearly not straight, dropped hints about it (‘I’m high and I’m bi- wait, I mean I’m straight’), and that’s enough to be queer around these parts.
We all read his open letter, right? It was dropped on his Tumblr page I think days before channel ORANGE came out, a way to contextualize the album, but also to get ahead of what we’d hear on “Forrest Gump”, which is an allusion to the man Frank fell in love with summers prior. It’s such a profound read even now – a young man, around 24 at the time, reminiscing on love had and lost, reflecting on who he was when he met that person and who he’s become since, thanking his close friends he had confided in, thanking his mother who raised him strong. It’s a highly valuable snapshot of Frank’s life that helps us understand where he was when he wrote this album because it, just like that letter, is profoundly him, if a little exaggerated or primed with creative freedom.
Even the very first track, a non-assuming intro, is personal and relatable – a Playstation is booted up (nostalgia ultra indeed) and we hear the menu chime and character selection music from what is likely a revised version of Street Fighter II (my money’s on Street Fighter II Hyper Fighting), I assume from one of the few collections Capcom released on PS1 for the series. It’s quaint, it’s quiet, it’s very… millennial. The ‘90s kid in me goes ‘ah shit, this is gonna be cozy’.
And cozy it is. Throughout channel ORANGE, Frank really puts mood and tone before most other things. Everything has a Californian haze to it; sun-soaked, but also moonlit at appropriate times. It is a quintessential vibe album. I can’t imagine putting this on and not feeling instantly better. It’s also dangerously consistent – though we start the album proper with “Thinkin Bout You”, which is arguably the weakest track here (still good though), everything that follows is exceedingly good in its own way.
I will… try to refrain from talking about every song here, as that’s not really going to do anyone any good, but we need to talk about favorites and standouts, which will be hard. I think where this album’s brilliance really starts is with “Sweet Life”, a softly satirical send-up of the rich and wealthy, and their nonplussed attitude to the world outside their comfy spheres. It’s very much on brand for Frank as far as the tone – commanding bass, playful keyboards, and a soaring chorus. Lyrics aren’t preachy or even scolding, but still frame the lavish lifestyle of the California elite as a black hole for empathy and the adventure that Frank’s soul seems to teem with.
‘The best song wasn’t the single, but you weren’t either
Livin’ in Ladera Heights, the Black Beverly Hills
Domesticated paradise, palm trees and pools
The water’s blue, swallow the pill
Keepin’ it surreal, whatever you like’
The juxtaposition of the blue water and swallowing a pill brings to mind The Matrix, in which the blue pill is one of two pills offered by Morpheus to Neo if he wanted to stay ‘asleep’ and ignorant to the reality of the world-at-large. In the film, Morpheus says with the blue pill, ‘the story ends – you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe’ – here, on “Sweet Life”, money is the blue pill, blinding, as is the privilege it comes with. The chorus sums it up the best: ‘So why see the world when you got the beach?’
This isn’t particularly relatable to me, maybe it isn’t much to Frank either, as he does seem to be softly critical of that sort of lifestyle, but it’s clear it’s something he’s at least familiar with. Maybe he had a few friends who lived in Ladera Heights, which is indeed an affluent area, called the ‘Black Beverly Hills’ for decades along with some adjacent neighborhoods (of course, there’s a sordid, racist history behind all of this). This is a prime example of Frank pulling from reality, but twisting it into a narrative he wants to tell with channel ORANGE, and it’s one he’ll tell from both sides of the red pill/blue pill divide if you don’t mind me continuing that allusion.
Anyway, this continues on “Super Rich Kids”, which is a bit more explicit and this time comes with a first-person perspective and a groggy guest verse from Earl Sweatshirt (dude was sick and high when he recorded this). It’s more rhythmic with a persistent piano and bass stomp throughout, but still pulls from more grandiose places, particularly with the lyrics, and the chorus is very telling of where we’re heading:
‘Too many bottles of this wine we can’t pronounce
Too many bowls of that green, no Lucky Charms
The maids come around too much
Parents ain’t around enough
Too many joy rides in daddy’s Jaguar
Too many white lies and white lines
Super rich kids with nothing but loose ends
Super rich kids with nothing but fake friends’
It’s here, if you consider this a direct continuation of “Sweet Life”, that the facade starts to crack. The luxury seems to have a limit to its personal fulfillment and enlightenment – maybe it’s not all there is to life after all. This song actually goes to some dark places. Frank sings about starting his day on the roof of what we can only assume is a multi-million-dollar mansion. He gets high, watches TV, gets bathed by a lover three times a day(?), and generally enjoys the accouterments of the wealthy – ‘New car, new girl/New ice, new glass/New watch, good times babe/It’s good times’ – but who is he trying to convince, us or himself? Every subsequent time it’s insisted these are ‘good times’, it’s as if the words are being said through increasingly gritted teeth, eyes welling with water, the happy mask giving way to the madness underneath. No where is this more apparent than in Frank’s final verse where he references suicide and (unintentionally?) falling off that same roof that gave him a veritable view for the gods each morning:
‘We end our day up on the roof
I say I’ll jump, I never do
But when I’m drunk I act a fool
(Talking ’bout) Do they sew wings on tailored suits
I’m on that ledge, she grabs my arm
She slaps my hand
It’s good times, yeah
Sleeve rips off, I slip, I fall
The market’s down like 60 stories
And some don’t end the way they should
My silver spoon has fed me good
A million one, a million cash
Close my eyes and feel the crash’
The wordplay is immense, as nearly the whole second half of the verse is a double entendre. Is the crash Frank sings of his body hitting the cement after a free fall, or the crash of the market that could rob him and his family of their extravagance? Either way, it’s as good as death for life as he knows it, and as he sings a couple times throughout the track about searching for a real love, you can’t help but feel like there was always something missing for him that ultimately led to his demise, something money couldn’t buy.
This sort of theming isn’t exactly profound or new to storytelling or music – the rich will always inevitably be unsatisfied with vast wealth because they are almost always corrupted by it and it’s never enough – but it’s how it’s told. Maybe there’s more to that Matrix connection than meets the eye. If channel ORANGE is to be considered a connected story throughout, albeit loosely so, “Sweet Life” seems to have really been Frank’s, or whoever he portrays, pill decision, and what happens in these songs are the result of choosing a life of blissful ignorance, but it’s also a poisonous one.
So then what of the red pill? What of reality? This is where the album really shows its strength. Starting off slow with “Crack Rock”, we get the opposite of opulence, focusing on a crack addict who’s lost his family and home to it. He’s smoking in abandoned homes, fucking women raw, and just living a dangerous life, but it’s the only life he has. Make no mistake – we’re not meant to chastise the man in this story, but rather empathize. He’s a victim, of circumstance and systemic intervention, dealing with corrupt police and their hand in putting those drugs in neighborhoods, and an inherent racism that comes from the War on Drugs and the valuation of cop life over Black life and/or the lives of victims of drum abuse.
‘Crooked cop, dead cop
How much dope can you push to me?
Crooked cop, dead cop
No good for community
Fuckin’ pig get shot, three hundred men will search for me
My brother get popped and don’t no one hear the sound
Don’t no one hear the rounds
Don’t no one hear the shells
Don’t no one hear a sound
Don’t no one disturb the peace for riot
Don’t no one disrupt nirvana
Don’t no one wanna blow the high’
Then we get to what I consider one of the absolute best songs of the last decade – “Pyramids”. Two linked stories in one song, it’s a harrowing, writhing, sensual, dramatic tale of the jarring societal change in how Black women have existed and portrayed in ancient history and presently. The first half, a grand retelling of Queen Cleopatra’s betrayal of her kingdom and people set to wavy and warbling synths that are the most danceable thing on the album. Pyramids now are a symbol of royalty, godhood, and social stature. Frank’s rich singing plays so well to this theme without overdramatizing it all – the lyrics alone do all that lifting.
‘Our skin like bronze and our hair like cashmere
As we march to the rhythm on the palace floor
Chandeliers inside the pyramids tremble from the force
Cymbals crash inside the pyramids, voices fill up the halls’
It paints such an extravagant, magnificent picture, like you were really graced with pomp befitting of a king and queen. But then it all goes terribly wrong, as if prophesied. After being missing for some time, apparently kidnapped, the true nature of Cleopatra’s disappearance is revealed.
‘The jewel of Africa, jewel
What good is a jewel that ain’t still precious?
How could you run off on me? How could you run off on us?
You feel like God inside that gold
I found you layin’ down with Samson and his full head of hair
Found my black queen Cleopatra, bad dreams, Cleopatra’
She dies somehow, implied by the bite of an Egyptian asp (‘she lives no more, serpent in her room’), which aligns with commonly held beliefs of her downfall (historically, it is believed Cleopatra committed suicide via allowing an asp to bite her, its venom ultimately being the cause of death). Her body is taken to a tomb along with cheetahs (cats were traditionally mummified along with people of higher status in ancient Egypt to protect them in the afterlife, and also as a sign of respect to the animal as they were considered divine and powerful).
It is then that the scene melts away – we get psychedelic synths and moaning guitars dissolving into a more modern setting. Frank is still singing, but his voice almost feels shaken as he sets a new scene with a segue verse.
‘Big sun comin’ strong through the motel blinds
Wake up to your girl
For now, let’s call her Cleopatra, Cleopatra
I watch you fix your hair
Then put your panties on in the mirror, Cleopatra
Then your lipstick, Cleopatra
Then your six-inch heels, catch her
She’s headed to the pyramid
She’s working at the pyramid tonight’
The second Frank sings ‘tonight’ at the end, a snappy hi-hat manifests and the song takes on more of a trap feel in the production with stuttering synths and rumbling bass in the back. This is a very different place compared to the splendor of ancient Egypt. Now Cleopatra is a working woman, a sex worker to be exact. Now the pyramid, almost certainly referencing the Luxor hotel and casino in Las Vegas, is where she works (the pyramid can also refer to the shape made by a hard dick rising under the sheets, as illustrated by the Simpsons inspired cover art for the single). Although she may be worshiped as a queen would be by suitors and clients alike, things without a doubt have changed.
This part of the story is told from what I believe is two perspectives, neither as high as that of a pharaoh – the lover of modern Cleopatra, and her pimp. The first proper verse of this half of “Pyramids” personifies our pimp character and further narrows our modern timeline to somewhere in the ‘80s or ‘90s, with brags of large TVs with VCRs and wood grain cars – a bygone era, but a nostalgic one to some.
‘Pimpin’ in my convos
Bubbles in my champagne, let it be some jazz playing
Top floor motel suite, twistin’ my cigars
Floor model TV with the VCR
Got rubies in my damn chain
Whip ain’t got no gas tank, but it still got wood grain
Got your girl working for me
Hit the strip and my bills paid’
Contrast this with the last verse which is that of Cleopatra’s lover (the same perspective as the segue verse), someone completely infatuated with her while having to respect and contend with her job as someone who works to please others. Their time together is undoubtedly passionate, but the lines between lover and customer are blurred with some lyrics, and it’s clear to him that things aren’t the same as they perhaps once were.
‘You showed up after work, I’m bathing your body
Touch you in places only I know
You’re wet and you’re warm just like our bathwater
Can we make love before you go?
The way you say my name makes me feel like
I’m that ni**a but I’m still unemployed
You say it’s big but you take it – ride cowgirl
But your love ain’t free no more, baby’
It’s not hard to draw the conclusion of what Frank’s getting at here. If you listen to discourse on racial equity and justice in the context of the USA, you’ve likely heard the lamentation of those with African roots being literal kings and queens in pre-colonial African times, the slave trade irreparably damaging that reality centuries ago and ever since, made to be brutally worked, abused, and killed stateside in service to the divine expansion of the white man as they genocide another group of people entirely. From pharaoh to working class – it’s about as red pill of a situation as you can think of, a dream made nightmare for an entire continent and its people.
One thing I don’t really cosign is the surface reading of sex work as a lesser or degrading thing in modern society. Though Frank doesn’t explicitly talk down on modern Cleopatra or her profession, it’s implied through the juxtaposition of people who were once the highest stature of person possible in their times and now are much lower on the social hierarchy. The metaphor would stick if Cleopatra were a Walmart greeter, but I get it, it’s not nearly as sexy for an r’n’b song to go that route.
Still, I don’t think Frank meant any harm in staging the song in this way, but it is food for thought in how we talk about sex work, which is just another job and doesn’t require the ‘selling of your body’ any more than a factory worker would; no more objectifying than being a field laborer. Hell, even desk jobs qualify as selling your body in a capitalist framework. Let’s not ignore the agency of those who choose to be a sex worker because it’s convenient to them, desired as a career choice, or simply as means to an end like any other job. I’m getting off track, though…
What Frank Ocean builds across all of channel ORANGE are little vignettes of life lived, as real as can be and stuff that he has some sort of experience with. Even “Pyramids” was inspired by real-life people – his family has pimps, and he made that song building those experiences shared by them into a fantastical story to say something more. And I’ve only talked about a few songs! Really, they all achieve similar things – “Lost” is a jet-setting song about a drug kingpin and his lover who moonlights as a mule for him, which somehow manages to feel whimsical and fun (it’s not), and “Bad Religion” and “Forrest Gump” explore more personal feelings of unrequited love. It just so happens that this album takes on the form of ultra-beautiful neo-soul and r’n’b, lush and vibrant under the California sun, but it’s just as capable of burning you if you don’t sequester yourself from reality.
Maybe this whole ordeal is much more philosophical than it appears at first glance, offering different paths to take, but also warnings about each one. In that sense, Frank is the Morpheus to our Neo, arms extended and palms open revealing our choices to make, both with existential pains to process, neither as fulfilling as we’d hope. That’s reality, and maybe the choice itself is an illusion as all paths seem to lead to the same place. That’s for us to figure out, I guess.
At any rate, Frank Ocean achieves so much more than just making great music with this album. You can dance to it, you can sing with it, but as much as it is a reflection of his life, it’s also epic in the truest sense, an anthology of experiences that are messy, oppressive, searching for more, and incomplete for many reasons. Maybe that’s an unhappy ending to most, but to others it’s a purpose, a driving force to find and discover what makes you you, just as Frank explored with channel ORANGE and has with his more recent music.
I’ve always admired Frank Ocean from afar. It wasn’t because I didn’t think he was brilliant, or not a game changer into the r’n’b space, but the Odd Future collective irritated the hell out of me in their ascension. While I appreciated the artistry, I just couldn’t get past all of Tyler’s antics and the edginess of it all. I don’t hold the same sentiment today, but I was always weary of engaging too much, and that put me at a disadvantage, not appreciating Frank for what he does.
While the rest of the OF roster was interested in shock value, Frank always seemed a step ahead in his artistry. The serious artist that brushed away all the antics and focused on honing his craft. I appreciated the hell out of that.
channel ORANGE is evidence of that, too. This entire release was so massive and expansive. It gave folks a new perception of r’n’b, and ushered in the genre into a new era we’re still seeing unfold. It is a masterclass in flexibility and sincerity that very few singers could put forth.
If any of that doesn’t resonate with you, I’ll point out two of the shiniest of shiniest examples: “Crack Rock” and “Super Rich Kids”.
“Crack Rock” hijacks standard sentimentality of a r’n’b love song, is intimate in detail, and an easy-breezy listen, but instead of the yearn and ambivalence of typical love muses it’s about… a crack rock. It’s beautiful, novel, well-composed, and just all-around amazing. I don’t think anyone else has ever written such a beautiful ode to crack before it shifts into a protest song and the socio-political complications of the crack epidemic. No one has ever done this, and since it’s release I don’t think anyone has attempted to again. It’s a brilliant feat, and an amazingly complex track.
I misled earlier about my OF appreciation. Alongside my admiration of Frank, I also carried an enthusiastic love for Earl Sweatshirt. While everyone was trying to define or find their voice as a rapper, Earl sounds like he launched and landed from Planet Drip with his syrup slow flow. It’s always amazing, and always feels like a breath of fresh air. I’ve loved it since the first time I heard it, and what I didn’t realize I needed was Earl’s 5mph flow over a funky as fuck “Benny And The Jets” janky piano beat. It’s goblin napalm slowly burning at 1200°. Frank in his part does an amazing job reciprocating Earl’s chaotic slowed energy, and we end up with a very vivid story of Black artistic outsiders that skyrocketed into the limelight narrating their unease of juxtapositional environments. It’s a fascinating take on the ugliness, falsity, and loneliness of having rich parents. It’s the single most standout track on this album.
I’m glad I’ve come around on OF. Between Tyler’s complexities, Earl’s weirdo celebration, and Frank’s absolute ability to make anything appealing reflects a scene of extremely talented artists that lay it all on the line, for good and for bad, but tend to always come out on top solely because they’re just that fucking good at what they do. Frank is the king of that notion, and channel Orange is enough proof of that.