In an interview with The Quietus last fall, Frank Ocean stated his belief that genres were outdated. His reasoning behind this was that so many types of music have crossbred at this point, so there’s no need to pigeonhole an artist’s work, and because of this belief, he considers himself a singer/songwriter rather than R&B musician. “The former implies versatility and being able to create more than one medium,” Ocean elaborated, “the second one is a box, simple as that.” With the release of his debut album, Channel Orange, nearly eight months after this statement was made, Ocean’s remarks on artistic identity make more sense than ever. One of the most singular albums of the year, Channel Orange is a impressively varied collection of descriptive stories starring vivid characters told in a voice that is always unmistakably Ocean’s.
While each song on the album is constructed to firmly stand on its own, the whole album is coherent enough to form a stirring first volume of what will hopefully become the Frank Ocean Songbook. Ocean had already displayed his talent for creating flawed characters that could still elicit empathy from the listener on last year’s Nostalgia, Ultra. mixtape, but whereas the more character-based songs (“Novocane”, “Swim Good”) on Nostalgia Ultra. felt like well-executed experiments, Channel Orange is almost entirely composed of these songs, each one utterly engaging and completely fascinating. Not unlike Innervisions or What’s Going On from his musical touchstones Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, Ocean taps into the cultural and social zeitgeist on Channel Orange’s source material, resulting in explicitly rich stories that contain reflections on desire, greed, lust, and pain that are both equally current and timeless. Across the album’s hour-long runtime, Ocean sings the laments of (among others) a pimp in love with one of his strippers (“Pyramids”), a crack cocaine addict (“Crack Rock”), a drug mule (“Lost”), groupies (“Monks”), and self-destructive, upper-class teenagers (“Super Rich Kids”), and although all of these portraits radiate with detail, Ocean’s focus on the interpersonal aspects of his characters prevents them from becoming unsympathetic to the listener.
Perhaps because of his characters’ vivid and life-like portrayals, at the end of the album, the album reveals very little about that he only aspect of Frank Ocean that the album makes clear is that he’s been in love. On the album’s centerpiece, the harrowing and transcendent “Bad Religion”, Ocean sings his confessions of unrequited love to an unsuspecting taxi driver, and as he breaks down, its clear that Ocean is no longer in character. His angelic voice quivers as Ocean attempts to purge himself of the pain he’s suffered, but as he trembles in the song’s final verse, it becomes evident that Ocean has constructed Channel Orange specifically to reveal very little about himself. Although his characters undoubtedly reflect aspects of Ocean’s personal life, the man himself remains generally guarded and mysterious, which only adds weight to “Bad Religion”, and Channel Orange as a whole. When viewed as a collection of stories, it’s certainly a compelling listen, but when approached as a multifaceted look into Ocean’s innermost workings, it’s nothing short of riveting.
In what is now clearly one of music’s defining moments in 2012, Ocean bravely posted a letter on his blog telling the story of a romance he had with a man a few years back. He was quickly championed as the first male R&B singer to come out, but without discrediting his courageous decision, Frank Ocean isn’t the first R&B singer to come out because, as he pointed out in the aforementioned Quietus feature, he isn’t really an R&B singer at all. He’s a merely person who has been in love before, which, as he points out in the letter, doesn’t make him too different than you or me, and it’s this intimacy with Ocean that makes Channel Orange, despite its wide cast of characters, so consistently relatable. More than any other album in 2012, Channel Orange fosters a personal connection between the listener and the artist, and as Ocean’s star continues to rise, it will almost certainly become inscribed in music’s annuals as a glimpse into the carefully guarded mind of a master storyteller.