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Looking back at Channel Orange, the album that made Frank Ocean an icon

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There's never been a better time to revisit his 2012 classic

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It’s been almost a week since Frank Ocean opted out of releasing Boys Don’t Cry, a new LP with an impending arrival date that was reported by The New York Times and prefaced with hour after hour of meditative, Apple-sponsored woodworking. Fans around the world held their breath as Friday, August 5th came and went without a release; after months of similar false alarms, those same fans were looking at Ocean as the boy who cried "new music."

I’ve spent the bulk of the week since listening to Channel Orange, which remains Ocean’s only studio album. If it’s been a second since you listened to it in full, I can’t blame you. It’s over four years old at this point, and hundreds of worthy records have been released since. But there’s never been a better time to revisit its contents, especially if — like me — you’re inclined toward skepticism when it comes to Ocean and Boys Don’t Cry hype. Again, Channel Orange is just over four years old. Four-year gaps between albums are hardly abnormal for musicians of any genre, even those whose popularity and prestige sits just a level or two below Ocean’s. What about his work encourages boundless ridicule and quasi-religious hysteria? I listened to Channel Orange for a reminder.

If you go into Channel Orange for the first time in 2016 looking for a Rosetta Stone of contemporary R&B, you’ll be disappointed. Channel Orange has cast a remarkably small shadow over the sound of popular music since its release, especially when you compare it to the other albums that defined R&B in 2012. Miguel released Kaleidoscope Dream two months after Channel Orange; it made him a bona fide rock star, one working the middle ground between Marvin Gaye and Tame Impala with ease. Abel Tesfaye released Trilogy, a compilation of his early mixtapes as The Weeknd, a few months later. He’s since become one of the biggest male pop stars on the planet. Both men are often imitated and rarely surpassed; spend an hour listening to Beats 1 or the Billboard charts, and you’ll hear their tendrils snaking through pop and R&B. Nothing sounds like Channel Orange.

That’s not for lack of trying. When Zayn Malik broke from One Direction to pursue solo stardom, he picked Ocean’s producer James "Malay" Ho as his chief collaborator; Mind of Mine ended up sounding like Miguel and The Weeknd anyway. Channel Orange just happens to be inimitable. Putting Ocean in a box — even one as elastic as "R&B" — does a disservice to his breadth. He leaps from genre to genre with abandon: classic pop to neo-soul to conscious rap, Elton John to Stevie Wonder to, uh, John Mayer. He’ll make all of those leaps within a single song if you give him enough room: "Pyramids" crams an astral club romp, a strobe-lit strip club jam, multiple ambient bridges, and an ancient history textbook into just under ten minutes. You’re never given a chance to find your bearings.

His virtuosity is fluid and natural — he's not a show-off

The breadth is complimented by the vibe, which is casual and conversational despite Ocean’s ambition and prodigious skill. Almost every song on Channel Orange contains at least one breathtaking moment: unearthly falsettos, pained shrieks, impassioned belting, unexpected melodic flourishes. That doesn’t mean it’s an album for show-offs. Ocean is never trying to sing you off the map. His virtuosity is fluid, natural; it’s working in service of emotions and stories. The same is true of his writing, which remains mysterious and ripe for interpretation even today. (If you like overwrought Genius annotations, clear out an hour one afternoon and spend it with the amateur analysts plumbing the album’s depths.) "Sweet Life" and "Super Rich Kids" are the most potent documents of LA class anxiety this side of The Bling Ring. "Lost" and "Crack Rock" put human faces on addiction. And the album’s handful of love songs meant for men — "Thinkin Bout You," "Bad Religion," and "Forrest Gump" — are delicate and universal without compromising their queerness.

Even the minor moments on Channel Orange bring all of these qualities together in remarkable ways. One of my favorite tracks on the album is "Sierra Leone," a song I find breathtaking even though it lacks the personal significance and sheer ambition of the album’s usual highlights. In one moment, it’s a downbeat cautionary tale about unexpected pregnancy and financial anxiety; in the next, it’s rendering new parenthood a pastel daydream. A baby is fed, swaddled in radiant backing harmonies, and put to sleep. You’re teleported from a doctor’s waiting room to a pristine nursery in seconds flat. It’s lighter than a cloud, and it’s difficult to overstate the amount of confidence that must’ve been required to pull it off.

This inimitability — the combination of vocal skill, lyrical ambition, and stylistic versatility that makes Ocean unique — is only amplified by the way he’s made himself scarce since Channel Orange’s release. If you enjoy the album and want to hear more, you can’t just turn on the radio for pale approximations. You can listen to Beyoncé's "Superpower," a song on which he makes the world’s most powerful pop star play by his rules; you can peep his guest verse on Earl Sweatshirt’s "Sunday," in which he renders Chris Brown a pile of ash with what sounds like a monologue over brunch. (It’s no coincidence that Chance the Rapper, the artist whose blend of bold sincerity and raw talent is closest to Ocean’s, has become ascendant post-Channel Orange.) You can scour his Tumblr for missives and clips of new material. But that’s about it.

Maybe we're all just jealous

When you compare him to the other artists operating on his level — Beyoncé, Rihanna, Drake, Kanye West — you realize he’s the only one who hasn’t reached the point of supersaturation. Can you remember the last week that passed without a headline bearing their names? They’re stars whose omnipresence fits the digital age. Ocean is the outlier occupying the Void. It’s both a gift and a curse. Look past last week’s good-natured whining and goofy memery, and you’ll find a subset of listeners genuinely frustrated with what they consider Ocean’s artistic neglect. You’ll find serious debates about whether or not missing another Boys Don’t Cry release date constitutes betrayal. There’s a venom lurking that suggests there’s something deeper than simple fandom at play.

After spending this week with Channel Orange, I’ve come to think of it as jealousy. Everything about Ocean’s life and work — the nuance and serenity with which he explored his sexuality, his elliptical writing, his minimal online presence — places him at a remove from the plebes who spend their nights sniffing out memes and refreshing their Apple Music windows. He moves through the world at a palpable distance that even his most famous contemporaries can’t manage. You come away with the impression he’s been liberated from the day-to-day drudgery of existence. Those of us who don’t stand a chance of reaching that plane are just looking for an album to remind them it exists at all. Bring on Boys Don’t Cry.


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