In the months leading up to the release of Stevie Wonder’s classic Songs In The Key Of Life in 1976, the record-buying public grew so impatient to hear the record that its author was forced to wear a t-shirt around town that bore the legend “We’re Almost Finished!”
Perhaps Frank Ocean is sporting a similar garment as I write. It has been more than three years now since the release of his majestic breakthrough album Channel Orange, and one gets the impression from his Tumblr feed that the impatience of his own fans to hear the follow-up is not lost on him.
And the anticipation is killing me.
I wasn’t exactly an early adopter in terms of my appreciation of Frank Ocean’s talent. He put out a mixtape back in 2008 called Lonny Breaux, attracting little notice, but gained a degree of attention in 2011 when he released the far superior Nostalgia, Ultra mixtape. Nostalgia, Ultra is a bit uneven but the best songs are excellent. It’s certainly well worth a listen; Novacane is a brilliant pop song, while We All Try hints at the dramatic soundscapes to come. You can hear both mixtapes here for free if you fancy a listen.
I was entirely oblivious to all of this at the time. The first time I heard of Frank Ocean was later, in the summer of 2012, when Channel Orange came out, and so did he.
It seems like so much longer than three summers ago that Frank broke a bit of the internet with his gorgeous ode to the man he loved and who could not love him back. I knew nothing about him the time but there was something about the form and content of his announcement that marked him in my mind as an artist. Even though his announcement was posted on his open Tumblr account, he still obliged curious strangers to put in some work before learning his deep truths.
He hadn’t exactly prettied it up. It looked on first viewing like he’d typed it on Works for Windows or something. What’s more, he’d opted to present his words entirely in upper case, in a horrible font, fired into two brick-like paragraphs and uploaded to Tumblr as an image file. If you wanted to know some gossip about Frank he’d prefer that you heard it from the man himself, but not before obliging you to squint your way through a jaw-dropping and moving introduction to his personal brand of lyricism.
But still I hadn’t heard any of his music, and it wasn’t until the final weeks of 2012 – when Channel Orange appeared at or very near the top of every album of the year poll going – that I finally got around to buying his debut album.
I should really have listened to him sooner, but I had somehow got it into my head that he sounded a bit like John Legend. I’m not sure who told me that – and no harm to Mr Legend – but it put me off a bit. Suffice to say: he doesn’t sound like John Legend.
And so, six months after everyone else, I finally had my hands on Channel Orange – in all its surprising, advanced and emotional glory.
Swimming the Channel
At the very moment Channel Orange was released by Def Jam, the album format seemed to have run its world-historical course. Musicians still released albums, people still bought them and journalists still reviewed them, but they had come to be viewed by all parties as convenient vessels for the distribution of individual ‘tracks’ (how I hate that term) rather than unified artworks to be enjoyed in full as integrated statements of artistic intent.
Well Channel Orange was a proper album. And there have been few better since the 45rpm long player first emerged.
It begins with one of my favourite songs in the world, Thinkin Bout You. That song reminds me of Curtis Mayfield in its unhurried, gliding grace. Strings sigh, quiet beats shrug and Frank wonders not too hopefully if his lover “thinks about me still – do ya?”. Then he unfurls his showstopping falsetto as the song reaches its emotional climax: “I’ve been thinkin bout forever – do you not think so far ahead?” His voice betrays a sense of woozy resignation, for what won’t be the last time.
The balmy Sierra Leone follows, a misty-eyed ode to pink African skies, birth cries and Lennon lullabies crooned over smudged strings and Innervisions keys.
Then just when you’re relaxing into the gentle caress of the opening songs, Frank suddenly embarks on a remarkable half-hour song cycle about drugs, capitalism and race. The range of songwriting and production over these thirty minutes of music is breathtaking. On a later song he jokes “the best song wasn’t the single – and you weren’t either”. Every one of these tunes would have been a massive hit if Frank was into that sort of thing.
He begins by gently satirising the trustafarian class on Super Rich Kids and Sweet Life – y’know, the types who “had a landscaper and a housekeeper since they were born”. He then shifts his gaze to the losers from the war on drugs on Pilot Jones (“the dealer and the stoner with the sweetest kiss I’ve ever known”), Crack Rock (“my brother get popped and don’t no one hear the sound”) and Lost (“have I ever let you get caught?”). And then in the middle of the sequence Frank serves notice of his greatness with the album’s nine-minute centrepiece, Pyramids.
Bad dreams, Cleopatra
This complex song is open to multiple interpretations. It reminds me of Jock McLeish’s alcoholic sexual delusions in Alasdair Gray’s 1982, Janine, but perhaps that’s a niche response.
I hear it as a song about male inadequacy, and the female victims of thwarted male ambition. The song opens, famously, with an urgent search party setting “the cheetahs on the loose” in search of the “Black Queen Cleopatra”. When the narrator realises she has slipped off to conduct an affair with another man, he asks “what good is a jewel that ain’t still precious?”
Personally, I think this is a dream sequence, reflecting the narrator’s unconscious recognition of his powerlessness. To explain, we next find him in his motel room with the blinds pulled against the sun as he wakes his “girl for now” – that is, she might not be his later. “Let’s call her Cleopatra”. Cleopatra has a job at a club called The Pyramid where she…well, it’s left a little ambiguous. Either way, she’s “working for me…and my bills paid”.
Later, she returns to the motel where the narrator deludes himself that can “touch (Cleopatra) in places only I know”. Then the final lines reveal that “I’m unemployed…but your love ain’t free no more”.
In other words, he’s manipulated his girlfriend into working for him at The Pyramid, with all the intimate compromises that might entail, in order to keep him in the lifestyle to which he feels entitled (“bubbles in my champagne/ let it be some jazz playing/ twisting my cigars”). All the while he’s struggling to convince himself he’s still the only man in Cleopatra’s life – but his “bad dreams” betray his anxiety.
The music shifts direction at least six times over the course of the song, from house synths to lovelorn crooning to future r’n’b, echoing the infidelities that haunt the narrator. It’s sumptuous and captivating and startling and in no way does it feel like nine minutes has gone by when John Mayer plays us out with a distant guitar line. Pyramids is a masterpiece and no mistake.
And he’s only warming up by that point in the album.
The truth about my disguise
Following a curious, percussive palate-cleanser called Monks, Frank ends with four songs of the very highest class. After the high drama of the drugs song cycle, Frank ends Channel Orange as he started, singing about love.
Bad Religion leaves an indelible imprint on the listener and on the culture as Frank pours his heart out to a taxi driver over three aching, hymnal minutes (“Leave the meter running…just outrun the demons, could you?”). In this companion song to Thinkin Bout You, Frank has at last given up on truly winning the heart of the man he loves. In falsetto he bemoans “this unrequited love…just a one-man cult”. He resigns himself to the sorry fact that “I could never make him love me” before repeating the two word refrain “love me” over and over, his desolation growing ever more complete with every word, and every note a teardrop staining the page.
It’s a staggering piece of music.
Bad Religion is followed by Pink Matter, itself a companion piece to Sierra Leone. Frank sings about the grey matter of the mind, the pink matter of the newborn and the purple matter of the aliens he imagines looking down on him, before submitting to “pleasure over matter…close my eyes and fall into you”. Andre 3000 then does what he does for the rest of the song over squelchy, nocturnal guitars.
Then – at last! – some good news for Frank’s love life. Forrest Gump brings the album to an expectedly delightful charming and gauche ending with a memory of young love. “You’re so buff and so strong…I’m nervous…I won’t forget you”. It’s really sweet, and a brilliant pop song. Frank’s ear for melody is razor sharp.
And then, after five minutes of someone tuning a radio, Frank suddenly reappears for an intriguing coda called “End/ Golden Girl”. End is buried in static so it’s quite hard to hear, but I think he’s tossed away a classic. One line sounds like he’s singing “he’s got the whole world in his pants”, which is obviously brilliant.
Then the radio comes into focus and Frank sings Golden Girl, a pretty song about a man ditching his city life for an island idyll. “I’m my best on this island/ I’m a mess in America…I’m not going back home”.
Then Tyler the Creator raps a couple of verses and we’re done.
But there’s a key line in the final song that bears on the whole record: “She peels an orange for us in the morning/ she wakes me up to give me half”. Frank is leaving us with a clue about the meaning of the album title.
But firstly, what is the album about? The song cycle in the middle is about people dependent on drugs to kill the loneliness, while the pretty songs that bookend that sequence are about people who spend their days pining over lost love. What connects them all is the need to waste time, to block out reality; as an earlier character notes on Sweet Life, Frank’s characters are “keeping it surreal…my TV ain’t HD that’s too real”. The only exceptions are the characters who invest their capacity for love in fatherhood and motherhood rather than in self-obsession, or the guy who escapes to a desert island at the end.
So what’s the significance of the colour orange? Well, it’s the colour of the sunshine that hardly any of the characters see much of (again, except the two “survivors” mentioned above), and the colour of the lamplight that more regularly illuminates their time-wasting adventures by day or night. (The flat I was living in when I fell in love with the album was always bathed in very orangey lamplight, so there’s a personal dimension to this too). Orange is also the colour of the middle traffic light; of the in-between stage. And then in the album’s final moments, Frank is woken up and fed an orange in a final authentic moment of human connection.
Or is it? That song all sounds a but too good to be true. Maybe he’s dreaming too, like the narrator of Pyramids. In that case, Frank’s only escape – Frank’s favourite waste of time – is through music. The album begins and ends with the dial being twisted on a radio. Perhaps radio channel orange is Frank’s only hope after all?
Frank’s wild years
So what next? Frank hasn’t exactly been idle in the three years since he released Channel Orange – there was the Chris Brown business, and songwriting credits on Beyoncé albums, and the odd musical sketch on his Tumblr feed, not to mention singing on his own tours and taking photos at James Blake’s, and apparently developing his own magazine. But the follow-up album refuses to appear.
People are getting anxious, Frank!
But so much has happened recently. Ferguson. The Kendrick Lemar record. D’Angelo finally getting his act together after years as a sort of Channel Orange-esque recluse and delivering a brilliant, militant comeback album. Charleston. Obama’s Amazing Grace funeral oration. Ornette Coleman’s passing.
One thing’s for sure: Frank Ocean will return to a very different Black American music culture.
I’m not surprised he’s biding his time. But the longer he spends perfecting his next suite of songs, the more perfect his fans need them to be.
Come back, Frank; come back and take the throne. It’s your time.