It’s nigh impossible to discuss channel ORANGE without mentioning Frank Ocean’s coming out as a man who had loved another man. With Obama’s approval of same sex marriage, Anderson Cooper’s matter-of-fact confession, and now this, it seems like a paradigm shift in socio-cultural ethos is about to begin. You only need to look at the amount of support given to him by the mainstream, even from the incessantly infantile hip hop elites. Being anything but hetero is seemingly not an issue. Well, at least in some parts of the world, but even then you could see small beginnings of change here. In light of this, Ocean’s studio debut comes out just in time for it to be this era’s zeitgeist album.
Sure, channel ORANGE can exist on its own, separate from Ocean and his sexuality. But his poetic open letter, originally meant to be the album’s liner note, gave extra weight to the record that otherwise wouldn’t be there; just speculated by listeners. Take the already popular ‘Thinking Bout You’, a seemingly gender unspecific track that implies certain truths if listened carefully. The only instance Ocean uses a sex descriptor in the song (“my eyes don’t shed tears, but boy, they pour when I’m thinkin bout you”) was as something of an exclamation mark, yet with the recent revelation of his sexuality, a literal take on it could be read. Suddenly the assertive declaration “you were my first time, a new feel” on the song becomes a part of his coming out letter.
The highest point of the album, ‘Bad Religion’, is a beautiful multi-layered ballad where literal and non-literal meanings collide. A damning metaphor for the perils of religion (“if it brings me down to my knees, it’s a bad religion”), love as belief (“this unrequited love to me is nothing but a one-man cult”), and the neuroses of a gay man trying to come to terms with his religion’s damnation of who he is (“boy you need prayer”) all at the same time. Amazing still is that he manages to say so much in under just 3 minutes.
You’d think channel ORANGE is filled with non-heteronormative songs, but this isn’t the case really. The two aforementioned tracks are naturally ambiguous, lacking in pronouns and only occasionally dropping a vague ‘him’. The only one that matter-of-factly describes his love to a man is ‘Forrest Gump’. A simple tune that is catchy lyrically and immediately hummable, which makes it the perfect fodder to desensitise homophobes to gay relationship – if Ocean gets mainstream recognition that is.
Ocean likes his instruments sparse and minimal, and he keeps his songs as short as possible. Emotionally concise. However the middle of the album sees ‘Pyramids’, a near 10-minute r’n’b epic that traverses the genre’s history as much as it explores the history of sexualised females.
Yes, the album also features songs about Ocean’s love for women (highlight being the Andre 3000-featured ‘Pink Matter’), which adds to the ambiguity. However it should be noted that he doesn’t always write from personal experience – he’s a master storyteller. Take the combo of ‘Sweet Life’ and ‘Super Rich Kids’ for example. The former seeming like a celebration of the good life (though observant listeners would detect the sarcastically jaded undertone) and the latter a Brett Easton Ellis-esque tale of debauched rich Californians (with a killer verse by Earl Sweatshirt). The monotonous and cold delivery is Patrick Bateman-worthy.
To those in the know, Odd Future has always been the most forward thinking collective in hip hop, having moved past not just the N-word but also machismo and homophobia (despite their lyrics). channel ORANGE and Ocean’s coming out only reaffirm what we already knew, however Ocean has the most crossover appeal and, perhaps, the most talented member of the crew. And that makes him a real game changer.
LISTEN TO: ‘Bad Religion’, ‘Forrest Gump’, ‘Thinking Bout You’, ‘Pink Matter’
IF YOU LIKE THIS YOU’LL DIG: The Weeknd, Miguel, The-Dream
2. Thinking Bout You
4. Sierra Leone
5. Sweet Life
6. Not Just Money
7. Super Rich Kids (feat. Earl Sweatshirt)
8. Pilot Jones
9. Crack Rock
12. White (feat. John Mayer)
14. Bad Religion
15. Pink Matter (feat. Andre 3000)
16. Forrest Gump