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How Frank Ocean Transcended The Hype

Channel Orange is the best R&B album of 2012, but Ocean's most impressive accomplishment is keeping total control of his image.

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This past July, nearly a year after the digital release of Watch the Throne made pop fans feel like one big audience for a day or two, Def Jam digitally dropped Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange a week before it hit stores, sending the countless devotees of the L.A. crooner scrambling to remember their iTunes purchase passwords. That night, Ocean performed “Bad Religion” with churchly solemnity and full string accompaniment on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. This came less than a week after Ocean had posted a heartbreakingly honest account of his unrequited love for another man on Tumblr, a personal tragedy elevated to epic proportions in “Religion”’s recorded and live versions. While countless fans (myself included) were still giddily dissecting their initial Orange listens on Twitter, the album’s most deeply personal and emotionally gutting song was being sanctified in medias res on network television.

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It was a lot to take in all at once, and it felt like a coronation — 2012’s sweetest pop cultural moment was also the year’s most perfectly engineered hype storm. As the week passed and the rave reviews for Orange started rolling in, Frank Ocean was pop’s newest boy king, the eccentric R&B savant and one-man representation of cultural progress. “Bad Religion” wasn’t a single, but it and the Tumblr post were discussed far more than any song on the album. It marked a stunning step forward for rap and R&B’s fumbling evolution away from its neanderthalic approach to sexuality, particularly because Ocean’s eloquent wording in the letter made no mention of keywords “gay” or “bisexual,” allowing feelings to stand in for categories in a mirror of Orange’s own approach to genre. Frank Ocean is a very talented singer-songwriter with the voice of an angel, the fierce courage of his convictions, and a wonderful LP under his belt. He’s also 2012’s most savvy brand manager.

As Mike Powell wrote in his review of Channel Orange for Spin, “Frank Ocean is a story we want to tell ourselves.” In the years leading up to this one, we learned of a talented songwriter named Chris Breaux who escapes from post-Katrina New Orleans, adopts the pseudonym of a smooth criminal, and hooks up with L.A.’s most notorious DIY 2.0 miscreants, who inspire him to eschew the major-label cycle and purge his ideas on Tumblr, which alerted his own fumbling corporate label of his existence. In the lead-up to Orange, the personal and political merged into publicity: Critics hearing advance streams of the album noted some interesting pronoun usage and started spinning the rumor mill. Ocean not only got ahead of the game, he took over the league.

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It’s been six months — a light year in the modern hype-churn — and Orange has outperformed its own hype. There’s not been a nominally R&B album like it for years: The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill and Sign ‘O the Times feeling like its clearest predecessors in terms of eccentricity, empathy, and scope. If there’s a single guardian angel hovering over Orange, however, it’s Stevie Wonder’s 1973 opus Innervisions, on which Wonder — only 10 months after 1972’s breakthrough Talking Book — mastered the art of looking inward and outward simultaneously, tackling personal romance, social justice, organized religion, spiritual and chemical transcendence. The spirit of Channel Orange can be located in the seamless register shift between the existential self-examination of “Visions” and the stark reality of “Living for the City.”

Ocean is a storyteller at heart, and Orange is so compelling in large part because it’s never entirely clear from what perspective his stories are coming, or where they’re leading. Like all great writers, Ocean’s narratives are wholly fictional and half-true — autobiographies on their way to becoming lies — which in 2012 terms situates Orange between L.A.’s two other singular auteurs, Kendrick Lamar and Fiona Apple. Ocean shows a fondness for stories about couples fooling themselves into believing they’re more than they are. The epic "Do You Remember the Time?"–styled first half of “Pyramids” soon reveals itself as a vivid dream, the regal synths dissolving into the doleful drawl of waking life, as Ocean’s out-of-work narrator wakes to his Cleopatra getting ready to hit the club. He splits the psychedelic “Sierra Leone” into two halves: the dizzy passion of teenage lovemaking, segueing into a post-partum second half, where the cinematic schmaltz of the White Album’s Lennon lullaby “Good Night” mixes with the dewy new-father seniment of Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely.” Irony is a register familiar to Ocean, though, and the song concludes with the strong sense that the protagonist is overcompensating to put off a confrontation with the reality of his surroundings.

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There’s a woozy, hallucinogenic drag to Orange, a logical continuation from Ocean’s breakthrough 2011 single “Novacane,” where passion’s endpoint was the sort of giddy lethargy that’s impossible to recreate, but gripping enough to create a strong addiction. Where his contemporaries might affect poses of hipster disaffection, alpha-male machismo, or boyish antagonism to distance themselves from the realities of their surroundings, Ocean’s songs wallow in the numbness of self-realization. His characters often find it hard to live in the moment; they’re often too busy thinkin’ ‘bout forever, or, as “Pilot Jones” borrows from Wonder’s “Too High” and Marvin Gaye’s “Flyin’ High (in the Friendly Sky),” they’re floating above themselves in a druggy reverie, acknowledging the peril but resigning themselves to addiction. His lyrics are often brief vignettes and snatches of conversation — “You’re always smoking in the house / Qhat if my mother comes over?” — a creative tactic likely inspired by Andre 3000, whose anesthesized verse on “Pink Matter” feels like he’s Skyping it directly into your expensive headphones at 3 a.m.

For all of its introspection and social consciousness, Orange is equally indebted to Southern California’s contemporaneous, decadent singer-songwriter scene, a psychic debt first acknowledged via Nostalgia’s brazen, lawyer-baiting “Hotel California” sample. Ocean first moved west flush with publishing cash and industry connections, having written songs for Brandy and Bieber. “He would pick me up in his BMW 2011 X6, taking me to weird expensive restaurants and shit, just showing me a lifestyle I've never fucking seen," Tyler, the Creator recalled in an interview with Spin.

Orange’s approach to this lifestyle manifests itself in the album’s two best moments, the Pharrell Williams cowrite “Sweet Life” and “Super Rich Kids,” both of which show genuine affection for the 1% while underscoring the consequences of their posh isolation. Narratively inspired by the overdose sequence from Traffic, “Kids” draws its musical inspiration from two of the early ’70s’ most perfect musical evocations of L.A. industry culture. The song’s languid R&B piano lope is a cop from Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets,” which urges the youth to plug into the faithless products of a perverse entertainment industry. The song’s barely concealed cynicism — which reaches its peak with Earl Sweatshirt’s phlegmatic tongue-twisting ode to the violent disillusionment of the privileged brat — is a direct descendant of Steely Dan’s “Show Biz Kids,” in which the original misanthropic pop savants (who, like Ocean, first moved to L.A. as songwriters) exposed the devils inside the city of angels, making movies of themselves, “who don’t give a fuck about anybody else.”

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Frank Ocean recognizes that impulse. At its core, Channel Orange is a self-reflexive multimedia project about mediation. With cinematic scope, Ocean zooms in to reveal the details of everyday life, then back out to reveal the edge of the set he’s in the process of creating. The first sounds heard on the record are an iPhone sending a text message and a PlayStation booting up, and static-laden surfing through an analog radio dial structures the album’s flow. The liner notes and lyrics are bordered by Apple’s TextEdit app and surrounded by images’ garbled transmissions on stacked computer and television screens. On “Sweet Life,” the razor-sharp imagery of a status-defining HDTV proves “too real” for Ocean, who prefers the hazy dream logic of “keeping it surreal.” “It was like all the frequency just clicked to a change in my head,” Ocean told an interviewer about his relief after the fateful Tumblr post. “All the receptors were now receiving a different signal, and I was happy.” Therein resides the album’s subtle, meaningful victory: Frank Ocean discovering how to channel the noise surrounding him.

Eric Harvey is a PhD candidate in Indiana University's Department of Communication & Culture, and a contributing editor for Pitchfork.