by Frank Ocean
Released July 10, 2012 via Def Jam Recordings
Reviewed July 7, 2022
Top tracks (based on community voting)
Pyramids (70%), Pink Matter (44%), Super Rich Kids (30%)
Kicking open the door to a movie theater featuring an emotional crusade, Frank Ocean extracts every ounce of beauty in both the humble and the magnificent on his major label debut.
If there is one thing Frank Ocean does not do, it is hold back. Unabashedly honest and forthright with fans and critics alike, the New Orleans native was bound to break through the “writer” label he had acquired in his early career. Ocean wrote some great songs for other artists early on—“I Miss You” for Beyoncé, “Bigger” for Justin Bieber, “Quickly” for John Legend, and more—and he garnered a writing contract for Def Jam Recordings, linked up with Odd Future, and even released his first official mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra all in the span of two years. And it was the positive feedback for Nostalgia, Ultra, where the lead single “Novacane” and fan-favorite “Swim Good” planted the seeds that would eventually grow into channel ORANGE and transformed Ocean’s writing contract with Def Jam into a recording contract. A little over a year went by between the release of his debut mixtape and his debut studio album, and that year was relatively quiet outside of a few performances on Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch The Throne, as well as a leak of what we now know as “Thinkin Bout You.” It was this rapid success, paired with his natural talent for songwriting, that first clued everyone in to his almost certainly successful future. A future that would eventually lead us here, to channel ORANGE, Ocean’s television guide-like major label debut exploring the highs and lows of life and love in California.
Taking the form of flipping through nondescript T.V. shows, the listener is guided through different soundscapes and concepts at Ocean’s will. Though the “channels” are seemingly stumbled upon at random, we never quite question what Ocean’s intentions are beyond exploring the tribulations of a youthful exuberance. The themes are relatable enough, but the grandeur of the performances creates a world entirely separate from reality. It is a world full of desire and freedom, long nights and quick abstractions, shady characters and misunderstood heroes. And it is all narrated by Ocean’s subtly charming voice and instrumentation pulling precise elements of almost every form of R&B and Soul to ever walk the earth.
Some songs on the album are stripped-back and under-produced in the most intentional ways. Whether it be Ocean reflecting on a love interest with a drug problem and low ambitions over a calm reversed piano track on “Pilot Jones,” the energetic organ jamming and his examination of a crack addict and the War On Drugs in the U.S. on “Crack Rock,” or the vocal-less guitar session he has with John Mayer on “White,” these less extravagant songs seem to have the same amount of weight in the tracklist as other much more glamorous ones. They are simpler, but still thought-provoking, intermissions from a tracklist so rich and eventful. Even in these less imposing moments, the listener gets diamonds of content. “You thought I was above you / Above this in so many ways / But if I got a condo in the clouds / I guess you could stay at my place / I’ma get one / I need ya / Admit it / You’re my Pilot Jones” adds dimension to “Pilot Jones”, a song that is somewhat underemphasized in the tracklist, as the listener realizes that this song is about a woman who is addicted to drugs but is also the singer’s addiction. Even the track “Fertilizer”, only 39 seconds in length, plays a key role in the television concept of the project as it mimics a commercial break with a catchy jingle. Although there are a few songs sprinkled throughout the album that are not inherently intense or over the top, there are far more with layers upon layers of nuance.
It is genuinely difficult to capture the entire mood of this project. Some songs like “Thinkin Bout You” and “Pink Matter,” the latter of which features a grabby but undemanding performance from Andre 3000, are luscious ballads of love and desire. Both songs feature soulful string sections highlighted by either synths or guitar riffs, yet neither instrumentals detract from Ocean’s vocal performances. Then there are tracks like the two-part “Pyramids”, a masterfully overproduced pop song that unravels into a filthy trap beat with a grindy synth pattern halfway through. “Pyramids” is perhaps the most assertive in its command over the listener, as the subject of the song—the correlation and comparison between a stripper Ocean is in love with and Cleopatra’s escapades—is meticulously elaborate and staggeringly impactful.
By far the most illustrious tracks are those like “Sweet Life,” “Lost,” or “Forrest Gump.” These songs all combine beautifully tracked and engineered instrumentation and bluesy, youthful lyrics. Ocean showcases his capability as a writer almost everywhere on the album, but these songs especially display how adept he is as a musician as well as he demonstrates his ability to compose and integrate other instruments. Ocean sounds eerily comfortable writing about an array of subjects ranging from wealth and happiness, drug dealing, and most notably, his love interests. The song “Forrest Gump,” specifically, caused a stir as it is from the point of Jenny in the movie Forrest Gump and deals with love and heartbreak. The song, along with the subsequent open letter Ocean published on his Tumblr page, revealed more information about Ocean’s sexuality, information that both modifies and enhances the listening experience of the entire album. The revelation provided by Frank Ocean gives the listener a more intimate feeling with him, resulting in the whole project feeling more like a friend putting on a show than a famous stranger’s first album on a major label.
As far as label debuts go, channel ORANGE, is decidedly personal, yet somehow extremely relatable. The album feels like a movie marathon with your closest friends and, at times, emotional soundtrack that almost anyone can identify with. This album shed a lot of light onto the inner workings of Frank Ocean’s mind, and what a fulfilling, imaginative, comforting, and tangible mind he has. Ocean’s monumental potential and genuine sincerity was on display on the record and those qualities along with the alluring musicality quickly solidified this album as one of immense importance. – Pax (10/10)
Round 4: I have been known to gas Frank Ocean quite a bit in the past, so I figured I’d do it again. channel ORANGE opened the door to modern R&B for me, which I consider my second favorite genre to hip-hop. Throughout the entire project, Ocean tells story after story of many different experiences of multiple people. Whether it’s a tale of “Super Rich Kids” living empty lives, or a man coming out to a taxi driver, there is something to learn on every song of this project. There is something about the mystery of Frank Ocean that has always captivated me, and his ability to bring so many different characters and scenes to life though his music contributes to that mystique. Aside from concept, this album is slap after slap from one of the world’s greatest vocalists. Urban Contemporary, R&B, Pop; I don’t even know how to describe the sound of this album. Such a unique product comes together with powerhouse songs like “Thinking Bout You” and “Pyramids” carrying the listener through the journey that is channel ORANGE. – Daniel (9.8/10)
Jacques: 10/10 | Pax: 10/10 | Victoria: 10/10 | Daniel: 9.8/10 | Alan: 9.1/10 | Dominick: 8.8/10
Jared: 8.5/10 | Ben (Synth): 8/10 | Peter: 8/10 | Cam: 7.8/10 | DeVán: 7.5/10
Liquid, intoxicating production with smooth vocals from Frank to support. The songwriting is far more intelligent and well-structured than people give it credit for. Combine that with some of Frank’s most passionate delivery and singing yet, and we have something destined to be a modern classic. Blonde might have been the album to put him over the top for many people, but channel ORANGE will always be the album to beat in my eyes. – @jakeandrew.music (9/10)