Frank Ocean’s ‘Channel Orange’ turns 10
Frank Ocean probably needs no introduction, but in case he does, a quick refresher: he started his career as a songwriter signed to Def Jam penning for other artists (including Brandy, Beyoncé, Justin Bieber, and John Legend), and when the label seemed uninterested in Frank releasing his own music, he linked up with the revolutionary Odd Future and released his debut mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra for free online in 2011. Appearances on Tyler, the Creator's Goblin and Jay-Z & Kanye West's Watch the Throne followed, and as the hype for Frank grew organically, Def Jam became more interested in his solo career, and they signed on to release his breakthrough album, 2012's Channel Orange. The now-classic album was released ten years ago today (7/10). Here's what Rob Sperry-Fromm wrote about it when we included it at #16 on our list of the best albums of the 2010s:
Channel Orange contains an embarrassment of riches. This is lush, perfectly modulated R&B full of pellucid storytelling details. It's an album of characters and musical styles which almost seem built around their stories, but there's no detachment or distance in Frank's cinematic songwriting. Instead we feel deeply immersed in the characters' longing ("Thinkin Bout You") or their languor ("Super Rich Kids") or their anguish ("Bad Religion"). It's a rich, enveloping listen; coming back to it years later, it's almost shocking how many great songs are here. There's "Sweet Life," a Stevie Wonder impression par excellence filled with incredible turns of phrase ("my TV ain't HD that's too real). "Forrest Gump" is perfect, perhaps the purest pop song here, a singalong that's impossible to dislodge from your head. And all these years later, it’s still impossible to shake "Bad Religion," an ultimate testament to his songwriting and performing. It doesn't make sense that a song with such an obvious writerly conceit could be so nakedly vulnerable, but somehow, like a magic trick, it works. The confluence of Frank's suddenly straining voice and the sheer sadness and clever poetry of the lyrics on the chorus never fails to make me well up. The lyric-writing here (and elsewhere) is remarkable for how closely it skirts up against good old-fashioned cliche, gaining power as it does so. It makes me think of Bruce Springsteen or Billy Joel in its unapologetic short-storyishness. Compared to the sparse, hushed, elliptical songwriting of Blonde, this is a full-throated opus, and one that continues to wow.
Channel Orange was a hit (it peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard 200), but Frank grew increasingly dissatisfied with Def Jam (and the music industry overall), and fulfilled his contract with the label by releasing Endless (originally a streaming-only video album on Apple Music) on the label in 2016, before self-releasing his new album Blonde (our #3 album of the 2010s) a day later. Talk of a new album and a string of great singles has followed over the past six years, but still no concrete word on when (or if) we'll get one. As the years go by, Frank just becomes more and more of an enigma, and Channel Orange still stands tall as a grand statement unlike anything else he's ever released. (Its song "Lost" also had a recent resurgence thanks to TikTok.) For its 10th anniversary, stream it below.
UPDATE: To celebrate the anniversary, Frank released two new episodes of his Blonded radio show on Apple Music. "Episode 012 ‘blonded LSD’ sees Frank Ocean conduct an interview about psychedelics with the esteemed Dr. James Fadiman, laced by a thirty-five minute original score produced by Frank Ocean. Episode 013, ‘blonded ENERGY!’ sees Frank Ocean conduct an interview about self-realisation and the ancient practice of Qi Gong with Master Mingtong Gu."