In re-writing the language of love, Frank Ocean articulated something so personal it spoke to all of us this year, says Aimee Cliff.
In the outstanding GQ interview with Frank Ocean published in November, the singer said that before he began his career as a recording artist, he had never been in love. “I had never been heartbroken,” he admitted. “When that happened, that’s really what changed everything. That turned me into a real artist.”
‘channel ORANGE’ isn’t an attempt to cut-and-stick iconic images of cruising and crooning from the movies, but a whole movie in itself.
It’s a learning curve he’s been climbing since he was hurled into it at the age of 19, and one that he reached the peak of with his intuitive, intimate debut album, ‘channel ORANGE’. Frank’s unofficial first record, ‘Nostalgia, Ultra’, was a heady stroll through his idiosyncratic influences (“What’s a radio head?”), but it didn’t break open at the centre like ‘channel ORANGE’ does; it didn’t know what heartbreak was supposed to sound like. It grasped, it alluded, it swam towards something bigger than itself. For me, the predominant factor that has seen Frank take such a leap forward from his backwards-looking mixtape to his groundbreaking album is a greater nuance of feeling. It’s there to hear in the supple ways he manipulates sound, so much more familiar with his craft than he was just a year ago. It’s in the tightly structured peaks and falls of the unpredictable Pyramids, the fantastical and faintly ridiculous set piece that is Pink Matter, and the throb of his hooks in Lost, Crack Rock and Forrest Gump.
Frank is an artist who is wilfully inextricable from his context – he weaves his very music from the found and sampled fragments of it – but on his official debut album, he began to learn how to use these influences rather than merely display them. From the warm Start to the gentle, rain-splattered footsteps of the End, ‘channel ORANGE’ isn’t an attempt to cut-and-stick iconic images of cruising and crooning from the movies, but a whole movie in itself; it’s a story told honestly, openly, from a experience that was genuinely felt. He knows himself much better; it shows.
Frank Ocean feat. Andre 3000 – Pink Matter
This leap forward was encapsulated in the singer’s decision to make his very personal story behind the album very public, wearing his heart – kind of literally – on his album sleeve. Back in July, Caspar Salmon predicted in a comment piece for Dummy that Frank would have to find a way of reconciling his sexuality with a genre that was historically exclusive to any non-heteronormative feelings and experiences, saying it would be “the measure of him” as an artist. With ‘channel ORANGE’, Frank measured up.
Pussy Riot demonstrated their political discontent on the platform of a Moscow church this year, but Frank Ocean’s prostration of himself on the altar of unrequited love was also a crucial moment of 2012.
It starts with a pronoun, inserted inconspicuously and revolutionarily into the genre of love, with the line “I can never make him love me.” It comes as an embarrassing surprise, as you realise you have never heard such a simple, sweet line sung from a man to another man before. Pussy Riot demonstrated their political discontent controversially on the platform of a Moscow church this year, but Frank Ocean’s prostration of himself on the altar of unrequited love was also a defining, crucial moment of 2012; in Bad Religion, the church becomes not a symbol of institution and corruption but an overwhelming and all-encompassing metaphor for love. In a paraphrased conversation with a taxi driver, Frank sings, “‘Allahu akbar’, I told him don’t curse me/ ‘But boy you need prayer’, I guess it couldn’t hurt me.” In these two lines, we see the ignorant rejection of a kind of religion that’s outside of the perceived norm, and we see that when that religion is rephrased to “prayer”, it becomes more personal, and more easily accepted. There’s a comment to be found here about love – about the out-of-hand rejection of certain forms of it, and about its harmless, universal core.
Frank Ocean – Bad Religion
‘channel ORANGE’ is littered with open-mouthed “woah” moments, but that unravelling pirouette of “ooh, unrequited love” was the first thing that made me stop in my tracks when I listened through to it for the first time, and even now it makes me close my eyes as if in prayer. There are some things that cut so deep in the making of them that they come the closest I can imagine to baring a soul. To make someone feel this, and simultaneously to make them say “hey, I recognise that PlayStation sound effect / that Dragonball Z character / that snippet of Mary J Blige!” is a resounding achievement. It’s also everything that 2012, musically, was – entrenched in nostalgic reference and yet also intensely (almost uncomfortably) personal, eyebrow-raisingly self-aware and a whole heap of fun. A perfect album, for me, is one that consistently moves me to awe, one that tells a story with both Hollywood grandiosity and intimate closeness, but also one that I can also put on to dance to while swanning about telling people “got on my buttercream silk shirt, and it’s Versace!” It’s one that I can step into, that builds up its sonic walls around me, and one that, as Pharrell Williams put it so poetically, is “a writer’s perfect exemplification of the unconscious”: ‘channel ORANGE’ does it all.