Oh Frank. Why does he do it to us?
It’s not like Frank Ocean is the first artist to keep his fans waiting; D’Angelo left it 14 years before releasing Black Messiah, The Avalanches just dropped the follow up to their cult debut a whole 16 years after it was released. It’s only been five years since Channel Orange, but nothing has come close to the Frank hysteria. In a way, the anguish etched across the web stands as a sort of virtual monument to his first – and to date only – album.
It’s looking like we’ll be put out our misery soon. Snapchat have done a waiting-for-Frank-filter, and there’s a live stream on the Internet of some people assembling some sort of stage. It’s coming, surely? Five years of false starts have left my belief in bits.
Nonetheless, it was this latest, most encouraging sign that Boys Don’t Cry is on its way that inspired me to go back and listen through Channel Orange again. That being said, I never need much encouragement.
It’s one of the best albums of my generation.
Back in 2011, compared to his contemporaries, Ocean was a breath of fresh air – a sea breeze if you will. To put the beauty of Channel Orange into perspective, it’s probably easiest to consider the other stuff knocking about at that time. Kanye was at the peak of his powers; My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, arguably his best album, had dropped the year before. It was gorgeously produced, punchy, unforgiving and – as is often the case with Kanye – problematic. Nothing Was The Same was a glint in Drake’s creative eye, but his brand of relationship-centric melodrama was on the up. New innovations arrived in the form Flying Lotus’ and his brand of jazz-infused electronica. Erykah Badu double-album New Amerykah cemented her position at the forefront of contemporary neo-Soul. Each contributed something exciting, something new, but each was also somewhat distinct.
D’Angelo was the closest thing both musically and thematically you could find to Frank before Frank. But even here, where the latter’s seminal album Voodoo – released way back in 2000 – was bursting with funky sexual confidence, Channel Orange delivered a much fuller spectrum of human emotion. Frank’s pendulum swings effortlessly from romantic bravado to crippling uncertainty, and does so with a grace juxtaposed to the stories he’s telling.
Take album opener Thinking About You. With each verse, Frank’s thoughts unravel as a constant stream of consciousness, swaying between banal observations on the weather and crushing self-doubt without a pause.
Throughout the album, Ocean uses fictitious characters as a frame for his own emotions. The penultimate Forrest Gump is a catalyst for Frank to describe the emotion surrounding his first love; whilst over the course of nine-minute epic Pyramids, the metaphorical message melts away, with the lines between Cleopatra’s story and the girl in Frank’s life blurring beyond recognition by the end.
But he didn’t just toy with his emotions – between and within each track, Channel Orange delivers a musical patchwork without the seams. Slow-burner Pink Matter and instrumental filler White both overlay the crawling bass of an R&B beat with soulful licks of a solo guitar. Sitting between these is Monks, which weaves a whirring synth through a track with all the sensibilities of a jazz/funk piece.
The truth is, there was nothing like Frank before Frank. Of course you could box him up and sell him as R&B, as neo-soul, as synth funk, as hip-hop. But don’t. Channel Orange arrives at the intersection of them all; it had the production value of a Kanye record, the sexual energy of D’Angelo, the self-conscious reflection of a Drake, the electronic influence of Flying Lotus, the neo-soul of Erykah Badu.
Frank will come back eventually, and when he does it will be special. But it won’t be as special as Channel Orange. With this album, he changed the game. He took the very best from the work of those around him, and sketched a musical framework into which he could colour every piece of himself. If he can come close to doing that again with Boys Don’t Cry, it will have been well worth the wait.