By now it’s impossibile to divorce this album from the context in which it was released. On July 4, on the eve of a New York Times profile that would’ve said the same, Frank Ocean revealed that when he fell in love for the first time, it was with a man. Or rather, for a man. The lie of falling in love “with” someone is the implication that they’ve fallen too. In Frank’s case, he hadn’t. The letter tells the tale:
I sat there and told my friend how I felt. I wept as the words left my mouth. I grieved for them, knowing I could never take them back for myself. He patted my back. He said kind things. He did his best, but he wouldn’t admit the same. He had to go back inside soon, it was late and his girlfriend was waiting for him upstairs.”
Therein lies the nexis of Channel Orange: the pain of unrequited love and the way we medicate to cope.
I mean medicate literally. Channel Orange and its many players — Ocean is a storyteller, strumming his pain through a cast of characters with each songs — operate in a haze, a crack smoke-yellowed smog discoloring the poolside hangouts and fantastical strip clubs of Los Angeles. On “Super Rich Kids”, a deadened “Bennie and the Jets” piano line plods along as young Odd Future rapper Earl Sweatshirt declares in a Xanax-leveled monotone: “We are the Xan-y, nasty, Caddy-smashing, bratty, assy, paddy snatchin daddy’s jaggy”. André 3000 evokes the same vocal dysthymia in his delivery on “Pink Matter”: “Since you been gone I been having withdrawals / You were such a habit to call / I ain’t myself at all had to tell myself naw.” On “Pilot Jones”, Ocean is seduced by a grown woman who can’t keep sober. And the refrain on “Crack Rock” contains the boldest statement of purpose in a song since Elliott Smith‘s “Amity” (and I imagine it irks as many people for the same reason that song did: “AMITY / AMITY / AMITY”). Of the few songs to use samples on the record, “Lost” borrows a scene from Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, a film so dependent the smorgasbord of controlled substances it offers up, it may as well have been shot through a Vaseline-smeared lens.
The narcotic remove isn’t new: “Even when I’m fuckin’ Viagra poppin’ / every single record autotunin’ / Zero emotion, muted emotion, pitch corrected, computed emotion, uh-huh”, Ocean sang on “Novacane” off his 2011 mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra. A year later the distance is a conscious choice rather than a coping mechanism. Press materials for Channel Orange downplay its first few seconds, a sample of the original PlayStation’s startup music and the opening sound effects of Street Fighter, as simply an example of Ocean’s love of video games. But what those first few moments reinforce is the idea that the record isn’t the unfiltered truth. This isn’t an actual street fight. It’s a stylized reality framed on a screen, and the listener holds the controls — up up down down left right left right A B Select Start : play, pause, stop, rewind — to something that isn’t the real world, though it is a close facsimile, a playground where Ocean can safely confront his demons.
If those demons are exorcised in the naming of the junkies found in the “Super Rich Kids”/”Pilot Jones”/”Crack Rock” vignette on the left side of the album’s centerpiece, the two-sided “Pyramids”, the second half of Channel Orange is devoted to leveling up for the final boss fight.
But first, he has to face himself. Cue the chauffeured confessional “Bad Religion”. What magic lies in the back seats of taxi cabs that allows us to indulge our deepest thoughts, fears and fantasies? Free of the steering wheel, Ocean builds a church in the passenger’s side view, confessing through the plexiglass partition, “I swear I’ve got three lives / Balanced on my head like steak knives / I can’t tell you the truth about my disguise / I can’t trust no one”. He breathes his sad tale to the driver, who can only offer an unspecific prayer, “Allahu akbar” — “God is greater”. “I told him don’t curse me,” Ocean responds. This isn’t a plea for penance or divine intervention, but a realization: “Only bad religion / could have me feeling the way I do.”
If transcendence is the key to getting over a broken heart, Channel Orange is a losing game. The boss fight takes place on the final track, “Forrest Gump”. Forrest is, of course, the man alluded to in Frank’s letter. And though he’s spent the rest of the record numbing himself to the emotion, Ocean doesn’t put up much of a fight by its end. A funerary organ hums below a sparse, blooping beat, and Frank arrives at the album’s bittersweet punchline: “This is love I know it’s true / I won’t forget you / It’s for you, Forrest / Forrest Gump.”
That last line rings familiar because you’ve heard it already this year, on Lana Del Rey’s “Video Games”. “It’s you, it’s you, it’s all for you” she coos on the track that epitomizes Born To Die’s overarching principle. I draw the thematic parallel between the two debuts — the fallout of addictive, dangerous love — because it’s there. Maybe it’s a generational thing; this is how artists of a certain age get over breakups these days.
But where LDR and Ocean diverge is authenticity. (Well, that and Ocean could sing circles around her. He pole-vaults to a fine falsetto with Olympic precision, while LDR flutters up to affect cute.) Earlier this year, the internet crusaded to expose Lana and her lips of disputed provenance as a studio-produced indie cipher, and for some reason, that made the music less good, less real. For Frank, that July 4 declaration of sexual orientation was all the cred and context he needed, and its why the internet spread its arms so unabashedly wide. That’s why it’s impossible to divorce this album from that letter. It’s the foreword to Channel Orange‘s open book.
The Best Song Wasn’t The Single: Expect “Bad Religion” to top every Best Of list this year.
Pops Like: All the big soul (and neo soul) influences are here: That tormented howl at the close of “Sweet Life” is Voodoo-era D’Angelo; the storytelling on “Super Rich Kids” sways like Stevie, and of course there’s the Mary J. Blige “Real Love” hook borrowed on that song too; the literalism of R. Kelly, minus the camp, on “Crack Rock”; the ambition of Kanye, minus the machismo, on “Pyramids”.
Best Listened To: Alone, with headphones (or in an empty cathedral — whatever’s at your disposal), during a contemplative period of your life when you’re trying to reconcile how very cruel love can be.
Full Disclosure: This reviewer falls in love easily. With people, with places, with records. It happens when I recognize in them something familiar, something about myself. All breathlessness out in the open, I am in love with this album, for its beauty. Because to me there is nothing more beautiful than a broken heart.
Idolator Rating: 5/5
— Nicole Sia
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