Normally, an album nearing its seventh year of existence is not reason enough for a retrospective on its creation, but when the world built on the album in particular is as vibrant as the hue of the artwork, then some exceptions must be made. Frank Ocean was an internet darling prior to this album, but after its release, the intoxicatingly surreal world he engulfs listeners into within his music would ensure him a spotlight in the mainstream. Starting at the beginning would be arbitrary, but a staple of my unmistakable methodology. In this case however, it’s slightly unnecessary, as this debut album allows Frank Ocean to introduce himself to us.
To leave you without any backstory would simply be uncharacteristic of these reviews, so in an effort to keep this review concise, and possibly leave the door open for a future review of nostalgia, ULTRA, I will catch us up to speed in as few paragraphs as possible. Frank Ocean moved to L.A. in 2005, befriended some people within the music industry, and spent several years shopping demos and ghostwriting songs for stars like Beyoncé and Justin Bieber. 2009 would see him meet Tyler, The Creator and his ever-growing Odd Future collective, and he would go on to feature vocals for them occasionally in 2010, as they were gaining popularity on the internet. Ocean would release nostalgia, Ultra on his Tumblr for free on February 16th, 2011, and it raised his profile significantly over the next several months, just as Odd Future’s stock simultaneously began to rise. Work on the next project would begin this same month, as Ocean’s longtime friend Malay, a successful producer in his own right, moved to L.A. around this same time period, and the reconnection would lead to inspiration1.
The writing for the album would be finished in “within two or three months,” according to Malay, so May at the latest. The next nine months, give or take, would see Ocean record vocals for the album until everything was as he had envisioned, and then Ocean and Malay then produced the entirety of the record in the order the track list had been assembled. They simply refined what they had in post-production with segues, interludes, and a cohesive sound for the entirety of the album; applying the finishing touches by naming the album after a sensation named grapheme-color synesthesia, a type of synesthesia where an individual’s perception of numbers and letters is associated with the experience of color. This interviewer was at the earliest listening party for the album2, and it was here where Ocean revealed orange was the color he felt when he fell in love for the first time, which happened to be in the summer. The summer was fast approaching once more, and he even went as far as to tell this reporter that everything was orange again. It’s worth noting the reporter shrugged off “Forrest Gump” as merely being from the perspective of Jenny, the love interest in that film, as it’s clear to me that Ocean is being coy about what he’s hinting at.
The open letter3 on his Tumblr was originally intended to be in the liner notes of the album, but due to other music critics picking up on the hints throughout the album that he may be speaking about a same-sex relationship from his own perspective, or at least with help from his own experiences, he leaked the letter on his own Tumblr on the 4th of July; six days before the album’s digital release, and 13 days before the physical release. If this all seems like it’s happening too quickly, then I’m sure Ocean agrees with you, considering his isolation following the release and subsequent tour of this album, as well as relations with his label going forward. Rather than focus on his sexuality, which he’s since used a way to empower himself with tracks like “Chanel,” I want to instead focus on how impressive it is when Frank Ocean was finally given the opportunity to craft his own album and tell his story, he used every moment of his 15-month recording process to deliver us a personal work of art created decisively from the vision of a singular creative force. Ocean, Malay, and Om’Mas may have been the credited producers for most of the album, with Malay doing a majority of the instrumental work for the album, but the album flows, feels, and ultimately sounds the way it does because it is the creative vision of one man, with even Malay professing his tendency to want to be “transparent”; complimenting an artist who wants to be in control of all creative and business aspects of his career like Frank Ocean incredibly well.
It’s why Ocean decides to begin his debut album with the start-up sound from the original PlayStation; a touchstone in the then-24-year-old artist’s life, as it was for many Gen Xers and young Millennials. Appropriately titled “Start,” the track can be easily described, as it begins with quick and quiet dialogue, the sound of a television being turned on, which is quickly followed by the aforementioned PlayStation console , and then finally ends with the sounds of Street Fighter II Turbo: Hyper Fighting; once again, using non-musical elements to further flesh out the album as more than just a collection of tracks, and giving it a more personal feel. The violin introduction that starts “Thinkin’ Bout You” wasn’t originally a part of the track when Ocean released the reference track on his Tumblr4 on July 28th, 2011, even though Bridget Kelly had already expressed interest in using the song, and had recorded an acoustic version of the track for her then upcoming EP.
A tornado flew around my room before you came/
Excuse the mess it made, it usually doesn’t rain in/
Southern California, much like Arizona/
My eyes don’t shed tears but boy they pour/
When I’m thinkin’ ’bout you
The gorgeous strings tumefy and rest on the tonic, and then dissipate into a silky synth that swells in the back of the stereo space, giving Ocean’s cool vocals all the space in the world to control the meter with his subdued singing, using the sparse drum fills to create a relaxed, throwback-sounding composition. His falsetto compliments the instrumental beautifully, and is expertly mixed to fill all empty space in the stereo channel. The composition is masterfully arranged and mixed, but this track wouldn’t be the fan favorite it is without the lyrics, which on first listen sounds like any other unrequited love track, and expertly sets the tone and establishes Ocean’s nostalgic production style for the album. After the initial listen however, it becomes more apparent the track possesses a more personal point of view, and that songwriting shows Ocean’s true genius, because many people latched onto his words and many of them will never know what it’s like to be in a same-sex relationship, but the feelings expressed in the song carry no gender preference, giving it an easier time to connect with people of all backgrounds. It’s an ode to a more soulful era of music, with a modern twist.
“Fertilizer” is the reason I describe channel ORANGE as incredibly fleshed out, because the 40 second musical interlude shifts the tone from the bittersweet “Thinkin’ Bout You” to the more joyful “Sierra Leone” with the prowess of a visionary film director. Ocean himself5 told The New York Times, “I like the anonymity that directors can have about their films. Even though it’s my voice, I’m a storyteller,” and it’s partially why he covers a James Fauntleroy track on this interlude that “changes the channel” from “Thinkin’ Bout You” to what you could call the actual beginning of the album’s loose storyline, of which there really isn’t one, but rather, a track list that delivers a continually changing expression of emotions through the use of interludes and well-placed tracks that sound similar stylistically and cover many similar themes. Ocean covered and referenced other artists and films in his music in the past, and continues that tradition with this track, while also being able to continue the narrative he’s begun.
Pop culture is important to Ocean, with his lyrics often containing references to video games and technology, but he also enjoys talking about California. “Sierra Leone” contains contemporary R&B production choices, with the punchy bass line providing an incredibly solid foundation for the throwback synth work in the higher registers, where Ocean’s backup vocals also reside. His baritone takes center stage, and the subdued percussion fades in and out while additional synth work swells and radiates from the mix, fading out to give his response falsetto all the space necessary to deliver the masterful high notes that end that track. The groove ebbs, showcasing Ocean’s penchant for progressive song structure and arrangement, and it usually goes unnoticed due to Ocean’s perfectionist nature; engaging listeners with a well-written and well-produced song containing just enough contemporary influences to appease all people rather than distracting a majority of the audience with various bells and whistles.
It would only make sense to succeed “Sierra Leone” on the track list with “Sweet Life,” since the emotions expressed in the former correlate with the fantastical type of lifestyle that unfortunately ends with the “neighborhood goin’ apeshit crazy” in the latter. It’s the reason I described the album in the particular fashion I did earlier; a loose storyline only connected by the emotions it’s expressing through the placement and production of the songs themselves. “Sweet Life” through “Crack Rock” explicitly express the paranoia and dilemmas of people who are well-off, and in the case of “Crack Rock,” the people who truly are in a shitty predicament, but it’s all built off the foundation established by “Sierra Leone”, which paints the picture of a teenage Ocean maturing into a responsible father figure, establishing his understanding of the traditional concepts of what it means to be a man, which we know will already become challenged at some point due to the album starting with “Thinkin’ Bout You” as the first song, which is essentially the mission statement of the album. Although the real “narrative” begins with “Sierra Leone,” the audience is already subconsciously aware of and preparing for the struggles gone unmentioned thus far.
Pharrell Williams earns his producer credit on “Sweet Life,” as the fluctuating bass line and syncopated synth line successfully merge the idiosyncratic tendencies of both Ocean and Pharrell. The duo often discuss their synesthesia, according to Ocean, and we received an incredibly warm, sunny track with enough intricate details to snatch the attention of even the most untrained ear. You can easily envision Ocean singing this while lounging on a beach chair by a massive pool in Southern California, and the lack of snares in the first verse accentuates this comforting atmosphere, perfectly encapsulating the feeling of nostalgia with the frantic fills during the bridge and the chorus. The stereo space slow swells into a wall of sound as the track’s arrangement restarts, expertly rolling into the chorus without breaking tempo. His higher-pitched vocals find a sweet spot between the center of the mix, where his baritone resides, and the higher registers where the percussion, synths, and horns are tucked away; his falsetto once again is masterfully mixed to fill the gaps in stereo space in the short occasions he goes into his head voice on this track. It’s a relaxing song with a looming sense of dread, and it perfectly paints the paranoia of the upper class.
Why see the world, when you got the beach?
“Not Just Money” is the last non-musical skit of the album, although there is additional musical interludes, and it rather frankly continues the themes of wealth and happiness being explored upon in the last two tracks. It shows a diode in thinking between the upper and middle class, while neither commending or demonizing either way of thinking. Rosie Watson is the credited writer for the song, and it’s because it’s her words being used for this recording, presumably while scolding a then young friend of Ocean’s who asked his mom for some money in assisting with prom expenses. It highlights how society is ran on money, as Watson, in a visibly upset but vaguely expressed rant, explains how money equals happiness, because at the end of the day, the bills need to be paid.
Her point of view is further fleshed out in Ocean’s “Super Rich Kids,” of which even forced Anthony Fantano6 to question why he should care about the plight of depressed, privileged kids. Ultimately, he concludes the track is a satirical take on people who fit this description, especially with Earl Sweatshirt’s verse, and he’s absolutely right in that assumption, but to overlook the skit beforehand as “nostalgia, ULTRA on a grander scale,” is to do a disservice to the parallel between what Watson is professing and the unfortunate reality of the character in Ocean’s second verse falling off the roof of his elaborate home to his drunken demise. He never struggled for money, he was born into it; nobody ever gave a shit about him and he has no idea what to do with himself. The capitalistic machine is great at churning out feelings of disappointment in the rich and the poor alike; everyone has their own struggles.
The track has a classy piano that coruscates from the barren instrumentation, which quickly fills out as the track progresses. The drum machine and percussion gives a steady beat for the fluttering bass line to direct Ocean’s singing. The lush, lively horns and background vocals inhabit a space in the back of the mix where they float behind and directly above Ocean’s baritone. Earl Sweatshirt provides a tongue-twisting verse full of assonance and antipathetic behavior that his renowned and analogous matter-of-fact delivery perfectly fits the occasion to the point where I must assume Ocean always intended for him to feature on the track. It’s more likely Earl delivered the verse as laidback as he did because he himself tweeted he was high and sick7 while rapping his verse, but the fact that that’s just the way Earl’s delivery is regardless makes me believe Ocean preferred it that way the entire time.
We once had things in common, now the only thing we share is the refrigerator.
Ocean’s grandfather had alcohol addiction issues, as well as heroin and crack, and Ocean has vivid memories of accompanying him to twelve-step programs; “Pilot Jones” is the amalgamation of Ocean’s life experiences with damaged people. His first love was of the same gender, his family had drug issues, and although the story of the song is likely fictional, I’m sure the line, “Tonight she came stumbling’ across my lawn, again/ I just don’t know why, I keep on tryin’ to keep a grown woman sober,” is also partially based on real life experiences, in some form or another. This track has the most contemporary bass line of any track on the album, as the deep synth bass would fit right in with the other subwoofer-sounding club tracks in the strip club, and it pushes Ocean’s vocals to the top of the mix with the reverberated snares that sound like compressed finger snapping. It’s a more grounded track than the previous one, literally so, as the bass does hit hard enough to blow your subwoofers, so whenever the bass fades momentarily, the wide open stereo space gives the track this ethereal feeling that continues to float just above the bass throughout the track, where the vocals and reverb reside.
The reality he can’t break multiple cycles of dependence manifests itself further on “Crack Rock,” which is likely inspired by real-life events to a degree as well. The drums and synth sound like smooth jazz, but have enough jitter in them to give off the impression of a shaky crackhead. The final third of the track turns his awful condition back onto the police, or the system that’s been put in place to more easily introduce him to the dark underbelly of society, and how they can just as easily remove him with the gunfire of the police. The community is aware, and yet are still susceptible to falling back on these vices out of convenience, thus continuing yet another cycle of dependency. This all culminates with “Pyramids,” which deserves its own dissertation for all its marvelous elements that still somehow add up to something greater. It’s a supernal track, and likely Ocean’s magnum opus.
“Crack Rock” ends what I would dub the “first act” of channel ORANGE, and even though the subdued bass and jittery drum fills maintain a steady rhythm, Ocean’s vocals gradually gain intensity, and then the instrumentation stops on a dime to spare Ocean a second to smoothly state the track title one last time before the narrative suddenly time warps to Ancient Egypt. The odd, back masked sound effect in the back of the mix blends right in with the soulful, textured synths, creating a throwback composition whose snares syncopate perfectly with the heavy, fluctuating contemporary synth bass. Ocean’s vocals bemoan the denigration of the black female, symbolizing how the actual queen Cleopatra fell from her respected position of power to Mark Antony, and using that sublime transition to switch the instrumentation to a more modern club-type of composition that displays the promiscuous lifestyle of the average black hooker.
The discussion is uncomfortable due to the racial subtext, and overtones in certain cases, but it’s a necessary one, because Ocean rather frankly describes Cleopatra in the same manner he describes the prostitute. There’s a multitude of angles to approach this topic, but it’s first worth noting the placement of the track; nearly dead center in the album. The first act of channel ORANGE gives Ocean plenty of time to establish the environments and characters he’s familiar with, and with the final sentence of “Crack Rock” being a simple reaffirmation of the title, it’s as if Ocean is attempting to go back in time to demonstrate where the fall from grace for the black community happened; simultaneously explaining how Cleopatra’s affection for the figurehead of a rival nation has become the allegory of the black woman’s continual disrespect. It’s touchy, and worthy of many questions and much research, but it wouldn’t be as effective if the narrative didn’t sync properly, or if the music was simply unable to convey the emotions behind the lyrics. The transition and subsequent time warp leave a lingering sense of uneasiness, and we never fully settle, or “march to the rhythm of the palace floor,” as Ocean describes in the first half of the track.
The second half of the track is when we’re in present time, and had the instrumentation been left in the hands of anyone other than Ocean, Malay, and Om’Mas, then this would’ve sounded like any other generic 2012 cloud rap beat, but the way the music is properly mixed, with the reverb level perfectly balanced; Frank sounds both slick and vulnerable, which is a plus when he’s acting as both this prostitute’s boyfriend and pimp. The bass pounds as the synth squeals in the distance, assisted by the reverb, and eventually, everything falls apart. We’re left floating in a void that’s continuously contracting and expanding with every understated lick of John Mayer’s distorted guitar, and when the mind is left to wander, thoughts begin to emerge; reflection is good for any human, it allows you to be honest with yourself, or at very least, enjoy a tremendous song.
Pink Floyd was great at crafting as few tracks as possible to express themselves on one side of a record, and with Malay admitting Floyd posters were hung up in the studio while recording, it’s no wonder Ocean picked up on the art of pacing; “Pyramids” acts as the entire “second act” of the album. It’s nine minutes and 52 seconds long, two songs split in half, multiple acts of one long-playing experience that one writer explained as, “Ocean stretching the limits of what can be considered a song,”8 and there’s no better way to sum it up. The ensuing seven tracks are the third and final act of the album, and I don’t think it’s any coincidence it’s centered mostly around the idea of religion, societal pressure, acceptance, and sexuality. “Lost” follows “Pyramids,” and it only feels natural when you factor the narrator is describing his relationship with his girlfriend throughout the track. However, his comfort in assuming feminine and masculine traits in his songwriting is what gives Ocean the ability to string together tracks tackling similar issues on a commercial level, while subconsciously revealing their experiences and thought process on an artistic level.
You can only continue forward when you know who you are, and with the deep-seeded obstacles of the past manifesting themselves in new ways in present time, it’s easy to see how one can be “lost in the thrill of it all,” as Ocean so eloquently describes the sensation. Of course, Ocean is susceptible of using other points of view as a metaphor or personification to express a certain emotion or viewpoint that isn’t necessarily his own, but when he’s on record as stating “You can only write what you know to a certain extent,”9 and he’s shown to be comfortable with mixing gender pronouns and speaking from Jenny’s point of view when he states “Forrest Gump, you run my mind boy,” especially after a stretch of music that questions the aforementioned themes of religion, happiness, finding oneself, and societal pressure, then what else are we exactly supposed to draw from that?
“Lost” delves into another unfortunate relationship, but unlike in “Pyramids,” where the relationship is between a pimp and a prostitute, this relationship is between a drug runner and a drug mule. The woman is dependent upon her drug running boyfriend, unable to think for herself, and when that spaciously reverberated snare bangs across its delegated hollow stereo space, Ocean has more room to sneak his higher notes in that register. Combining those two components creates another old-school, soulful composition when you also factor in the understated bubbling synth that’s expertly mixed to the back of the track. The chorus swells as the production fills out with a hesitating bass line, giving off the impression Ocean is rising to the top of the mix; dispersing throughout the mix when the chorus hits. Sustained notes in the final verse are matched by Ocean’s ability to hold a note, and the backup vocals are unleashed once more in the final chorus of the track, and suddenly, the track is riding out the instrumentation into the final musical interlude, “White,” which interestingly enough, samples “White” from The OF Tape Vol. 2, produced by Tyler, The Creator, but has additional instruments and production layered over top of it, including Mayer’s final appearance on the album in the form of more understated guitar licks.
“White” intends to relax the audience before the apotheosis of the album, and it’s fitting the track feels as angelic as it does, with the atmosphere of the production feeling like an equal to Goku’s Nimbus Cloud. That feeling of an old-school throwback composition returns on “Monks,” which other than plainly stating Ocean’s affinity for the craft of older music, describes the struggles of the “I like art” type- girls10, or at least his attraction for them. There’s a mystery to her type, as she’s drawn to his music, or teachings, at least according to his own holier-than-thou descriptions of concerts, and the fact she’s been traveling the world, doing her own thing, well, it makes her “beautiful to me”, in Ocean’s own words. The drum fills are the most superb on the album, and it almost goes to waste as the track feels like exposition to set-up the parallels between the freedom of music and the strictness of religion with “Bad Religion,” the ensuing song. It’s on these two tracks where I feel the album could be shortened, but only when viewed from a hyper-critical lens.
“Monks” is quick, which is ironic considering it’s actually longer than “Bad Religion,” but once again, it’s all about the atmosphere created with each composition and how they flow into the next. The lazy bass jogs behind the hasty drum fills, creating one of those old-school grooves that Ocean loves to lose himself in the middle of, and although his vocals are compressed a little too loudly for my liking on the acid-synth breakdown of the final verse, it’s a cool track that paints the picture of a traveling musician well. The peculiar lifestyle of said musician makes one wonder how they could believe in a higher set of morals such as a religious code, especially when that religion has a rather disapproving view of Ocean’s sexuality, but when you’re from the background11 described in the first act of channel ORANGE, you begin to understand how imposing the church can be on a household.
“Bad Religion” instead forgoes traditional verse-chorus-verse format in favor of splitting the sub-three minute track into two halves, where the first half morphs from a divine organ that dissipates behind introspective piano chords and a sustained string section into the dramatic sign-off that is the second half of the track, when the drums replace the piano and strings in the mix, pushing them towards opposite sides of the mix and allowing Ocean to croon in the higher registers of his chest voice, peaking with a quick falsetto squeal. The ultimate point of the song is to express that anything that will “bring him to his knees” can’t be healthy for his well-being, and it’s on the ensuing track where Ocean finally implements the knowledge he’s acquired throughout the “tale” thus far, along with his own current and prior environmental factors and his own behavior, to come to a certain realization of himself.
Since you been gone, I been having withdrawals
“Pink Matter” is the realization, and “Forrest Gump” is the admittance. The exploratory nature of this final act manifests itself with the spacious vocal channel with which Ocean uses to masterfully croon up his register. The instrumentation arises; a bass line lazily stepping in-between the cracks of the distorted guitar licks, which guest André 3000 uses to expertly depict the conflicted feelings of a break-up. Ocean’s philosophical questions during the reverberated, cavernous opening are given details during 3000’s verse, and although André is undoubtedly speaking about a female, Ocean’s bare confession of “pleasurable matter” speaks more to a universal understanding. The final minute of the track delves into a contemporary mix between blues and modern pop-rap, reminding this writer greatly of an early Funkadelic chorus, and suddenly, an understanding organ is ringing in the distance, possessing the distant and vividly textured higher registers of the track that until just a moment ago, felt spacious but inviting.
The narrow stereo space of “Forrest Gump” gives Ocean’s vocals a more personal feel, almost as if you’re standing right next to him as he confesses his feelings. The reverb on his vocals, as well as the effects added into the mix, give off the impression he’s on a wide stage in a large coliseum, and the audience is hushed while the bubbly drum fills and quiet synth bass give Ocean’s howling vocals a gospel rhythm to fill out the stereo space with. Samples directly from the film named after the titular character are added directly into the verse to establish it’s from Jenny’s point fo view, and as I stated earlier, after the voyage we’ve undergone throughout the album, what does the comfortability in assuming Jenny’s point of view in particular say about Frank Ocean? Of course, as he said himself, assuming other identities is vital in stating an idea, and it may not be from his particular point of view, but in order to serve the grand thematic themes holding the album’s subconscious narrative together, there must be more substance to the track than what’s plainly stated on the surface, or else this simplistic little folksy-pop song would’ve never been the conclusion to such an enthralling work of art.
Lost in the moment of his former love, Ocean harmonizes near the end of “Forrest Gump,” and shows complete vulnerability by simply allowing the track to ride out with a bass line, guitar licks, and his very own whistle. It sounds corny, and yet, it somehow perfectly settles into “End,” which feels like Frank Ocean dropping off his former love for the last time, as the pair listen to to a completely different Frank Ocean on the radio. It’s as introspective as the intro, and interestingly enough, ends with Ocean entering his house to rethink the whole experience; sitting down to play PlayStation, unable to break another cycle. Calling this album his “coming out party” would be disingenuous, but to say his sexuality isn’t a theme is to be ignorant of Ocean’s overall message; no matter who you are at your core, choose to be the person you want to be, because everyone struggles, but the way you choose to handle your experiences truly defines who you are as an individual. It’s themes and assuaging sounds continue to make it my favorite album of the decade.
- Complex – 7/6/2012 – “Interview: Frank Ocean’s Co-Writer And Producer Malay Talks About Making “Channel Orange,” Andre 3000 and Kanye’s Help, And Frank Coming Out”
- Grantland – 6/29/2012 – “Summer Blues: Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange Listening Party”
- frank ocean.tumblr.com – 7/4/2012 – “Open Letter”
- Pitchfork – 7/28/2011 – “New Frank Ocean: “Thinking About You”‘
- The New York Times – 7/4/2012 – “Creating His Own Gravity”
- theneedledrop/YouTube – 7/11/2012 – Frank Ocean- Channel Orange ALBUM REVIEW – 3:08
- @earlxsweat/Twitter – 7/9/2012 – “Guess who was sick and high while he recorded his rich kids verse..”
- Pretty Much Amazing – 6/14/2012 – Tracking 2012’s Best Songs #14
- The Guardian – 7/20/2012 – Frank Ocean: the most talked-about man in music
- Kanye West – Blame Game – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy – 3:12
- frank ocean.tumblr.com – 2010 – “i was raised christian. only had a few friends…”