Frank Ocean’s ‘channel ORANGE’ Represented A Pivotal Cultural Shift

Opening up pathways for music, art, and sexuality...

I don’t know if you do but mentally I have a stack of albums that I know I will be showing to my kids (if I ever get it together enough to actually have them). Nestled firmly in that pile are two albums by Frank Ocean: his seminal album ‘channel ORANGE’ alongside his other jewel of an album ‘Blonde’.

It’s funny to think of a day when Frank Ocean could be a generation’s equivalent version of dad-rock. Regardless, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like Frank Ocean, I’m sure they exist, the world is a big and strange place however I have yet to run into them. Sometimes the vulnerability an artist presents is so raw that even if people don’t necessarily connect with the music they can still connect with its maker.

Frank Ocean’s ‘channel ORANGE’ Represented A Pivotal Cultural Shift

On July 10th, 2012 ‘channel ORANGE’ was introduced to the world. Defining a new generation of R&B and breaking out of the predetermined definitions of what the genre was supposed to manifest as. The album’s mix of electro-pop, rap and psychedelic-influenced tracks was a new sound for a new era of emotion, it was tenderness for the post-Myspace pre-Instagram generation. ‘channel ORANGE’ debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard chart and came with a deeply powerful and emotive story. Moving through themes of unrequited love, codependency, sexuality, feminism, escapism, toxic male entitlement, single-parent households, drug abuse, and economic inequality.

I once heard someone say that the most radical form of expression in a world that asks you to present your most uncaring self was tenderness and on this release Frank came with armfuls of it. Back in the days when Tumblr was thriving, on the eve of presenting his debut studio album to the world, Frank Ocean bared himself in a post that came with little fanfare but left a meaningful impact on the scope of not only his career but those around him too. Rumours of his sexuality had swirled after an advance review of the album had made a note of Frank’s use of “he” pronouns on the album. In response, Frank posted what were initially supposed to be the liner notes of ‘channel ORANGE, detailing the experiences of his first love. It was unpretentious, unfettered and deeply authentic.

There is a woefully biased and uninformed understanding of queerness as inherently feminising or ‘flamboyant’ which entrenches a lot of Black music cultures. Artists who use their creative outputs to help define what their sexuality means to them can often become a lifeline for people going through similar experiences. However, just as the freedom to allow your sexuality to define you is important, so is the freedom to find space where it does not. The important thing that unifies these two concepts is the freedom to choose how you identify with those aspects of your being. That is precisely what Frank Ocean exercised with ‘channel ORANGE’.

Mychal Denzel Smith wrote an incredible piece about ‘channel ORANGE’ and the notions of “coming out” and “coming in” where he broke apart how deeply cis-hetero-centred our societal perspectives on sexuality are, and how coming out can be shorthand for having to disclose elements of your sexuality and experiences in a way that isn’t reflected in the reverse. He introduced me to the principle referred to by Darnell L. Moore as “inviting in”. “Inviting in” is the action of placing the focus of a narrative not on how the experience of queerness sits in relationship to a cis-hetero experience but rather on how each individual relates to the presented narrative through their lens. Frank was living life as his own and upon the experience of deep pain and tenderness he opened himself up to us, knowing that it wasn’t the circumstance of his love that made the story what it was but the experience of being within that love. He offered the potential of liberation through other means, evoking alternative metaphors of disclosure and effectively decentering a cis-hetero experience.

On that subject let’s talk about hyper-masculinity, specifically hyper-masculinity in Black spaces. Frank’s queerness and his blackness do not exist separately, they exchange and intertwine their experiences. I think it often shocks people when black men present tenderly, It’s rarely a box that gets ascribed to them. The reason ‘channel ORANGE’ sits close to so many people’s hearts is because by presenting the tenderness that sits on his psyche he created space to be vulnerable if but for a few minutes of a song. Two of my favourite excerpts from his Tumblr post illustrate this vulnerability perfectly, saying “I don’t know what happens now, and that’s alrite. I don’t have any secrets I need kept anymore” and “I feel like a free man. If I listen closely. I can hear the sky falling too”. 

The Grammy Award-winning ‘Thinkin Bout You’ was one of the standout singles on the album, in it his use of pronouns was the most direct and unconstrained. ‘Super Rich Kids’ (​​inspired by the movie Traffic by Steven Soderberghand) and ‘Lost’ both defined a lot of my generation. I know if I were to start singing either of them in a room at least one person would follow up with the next lyric. ‘Pink Matter’ was a raw meditation on female anatomy, desire, and fantasy, featuring André 3000. ‘Forrest Gump’ was my personal favourite however, Frank narrates the kind of painful inactivity when something is so emotionally defining that the most you can do is sit back and revel in the motions those feelings take you through.

To celebrate the 10th anniversary of ‘Channel Orange’, Frank aired two new episodes of his Blonded Radio Apple Music 1 radio show. The first episode “blonded Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” was a conversation with Dr James Fadiman on the subject of microdosing psychedelics, accompanied by a thirty-five-minute original score produced by Frank. The second episode is called “blonded ENERGY!,” and is another extended conversation, this time with Mingtong Gu, who teaches the Chinese practice of Qigong. What both of these episodes touch on are clear principles that underpin how he interacts with music, not just as a creative medium but as a way of navigating a unified spiritual and physical energy.

Being able to connect to that channel of himself became even more poignant on his second album ‘Blonde’. To have a first album make such an impact and to then follow it up with an even more refined and emotional sound made it the release that solidified him as an icon. For which ‘channel ORANGE’ laid an unshakable base.

Frank Ocean remains the king of “inviting in” and because of this he still maintains 20 million monthly listeners on Spotify despite only having released two albums in over a decade. A Frank Ocean album is the emotional equivalent of being invited to sit in silence next to someone in a dark room, looking out a window over a cityscape and listening to your inner dialogue move between transcendent sounds. The same feelings it evoked 60 years ago can still be brought forward, regardless of the change in its circumstance.

Words: Naima Sutton

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