In 2005, when his hometown was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina, Christopher Francis Ocean (Frank Ocean) moved to LA. Over the course of six years, he wrote for Brandy, Justin Bieber, Beyoncé, joined Odd Future and released his critically acclaimed mixtape, nostalgia ULTRA. In 2012, Frank Ocean delivered his first LP.
Plenty of albums have come in strong and faded far away during the 2012 album surge (think Mumford & Sons’ Babel), but few hold up to the scrutiny of time like Ocean’s channel ORANGE. The album clocks in at a whopping 17 tracks and even now as I comb through each one, I’m struggling to find any flaws. It’s an album about finding yourself, about coming to terms with who you are, all while remaining deeply fun.
Take the third track on the album, “Fertilizer,” a 40-second cover of an insanely corny James Fauntleroy song. It serves to relieve the tension of the second track, “Thinkin Bout You”— an atmospheric and heart-wrenching love song. It’s the near perfect push and pull of channel ORANGE that drags you in and keeps you there to stay.
“Sweet Life” and “Super Rich Kids” recall bygone funk tracks, twisted into slow, drippy and trotting R&B. Images of pill-popping teens sunbathing in Southern California show the underbelly of a glorified, Instagram-filtered good time. Earl Sweatshirt’s verse on “Super Rich Kids” reminisces on youth lost, bouncing along the beat in a perfect complement to Ocean’s call for “real love.”
The next act of the album, “Pilot Jones,” “Crack Rock,” and “Pyramids” deals with the lighter side of the underbelly of West Coast culture—somehow without glorifying it. “Pyramids” clocks in at 9 minutes and 53 seconds, the longest in Ocean’s discography. Here he flexes his already apparent vocal and writing skills while the thick and driving electro-house production pounds beneath. Halfway through, the over-production gives way to a fairly simple 808 drumbeat as Ocean raps a bit. “Pyramids” ends with a soaring guitar solo, played by John Mayer— the perfect ending to the most ambitious song on the album.
Final acts of an already lengthy album can rarely compete with the early radio-ready hits. But as Ocean said himself in “Sweet Life,”— the best song wasn’t the single. “Lost” is the most fun song on channel ORANGE. Light and dancey, it speaks to the phenomenon of being young, working, enjoying yourself and somehow still feeling empty.
“Lost” is followed by another John Mayer interlude, then “Monks,” and finally “Bad Religion,” Frank Ocean’s in-cab-confessional. The track is a powerful testament to the crippling nature of unrequited love. With Prince-like screams, he laments being “in love with someone who could never love you.” The vulnerability of Ocean on this track cemented the album as an instant classic.
Five years later it sounds like I’m hearing these songs for the first time again.
“Bad Religion” is followed by an Andre 3000 feature on “Pink Matter,” and another incredible song in “Forrest Gump.” But nothing seemed to be able to top the emotional rawness of “Bad Religion.” Still, I dare you to not sing and whistle along “Forrest Gump” next time it comes on.
channel ORANGE was many people’s introduction to an artist who has now become both a music and fashion staple. Five years later it sounds like I’m hearing these songs for the first time again, riding along to Ocean’s heartbreak and ecstasy. As far as freshman albums go, this ranks among the best.
Get those nostalgic (ULTRA) pants on and stream the whole album here: