Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange has been in Pop and R&B aisles for one year now. That genre placement might be more for his pedigree—Ocean’s songwriting talents bolstered the track lists of artists like Justin Bieber, Brandy, and John Legend—than the album’s form. Listening to Channel Orange means being under a spell without sure footing. It means discovering new melodic turns even as you’re left savoring the last. You’ll hear a phrase of harmonized vocals, anticipate repetition, and get succession instead. These songs, nearly always mid-tempo, walk without doubling back.
On a larger scale, Channel Orange doesn’t eschew the form of alternating verse and chorus, it doesn’t forget that music wins when its listeners can join in as a song’s hook comes back around. But for each successive measure, Ocean has something new in mind.
That novelty might be part of the reason radio stations didn’t air much from the album beyond its early track, “Thinkin Bout You.” It deserves the playtime, but the ballad feels rushed compared to its masterful performance, in September 2012, on Saturday Night Live. Ocean’s falsetto hatched what Rolling Stone called “the highest notes” during a build-up of real intensity, stronger trappings for Ocean’s metaphor for nostalgia (“We’ll go down this road ‘til it turns from color to black and white”). It’s as if Ocean chose to further embrace the one adjective fit to describe “Thinkin Bout You”: sensual. John Mayer’s move from swelling chords to quarter note blocks helped the case (and later, his squirrelly blues solo closing off “Pyramids” provides the album’s most direct and working juxtaposition of electronic and traditional sounds).
Songs of equally pop vintage—”Sweet Life” and “Lost” in particular—are there to win their place as anthems, but it’s Channel Orange’s final track, “End/Golden Girl,” that makes us pause and marvel at Ocean’s ideation. All music uses time as its canvas. Some will also tinker with space, bringing in the sounds of daily life to paint a picture (see the histrionics, for instance, in Pink Floyd’s The Wall).
In “End/Golden Girl,” Ocean manipulates space rather than plugging in sounds that represent it. Listeners are witnessing a conversation between lovers. They realize that it’s bye-for-now, as a car’s dashboard beeps announce the opening of a door. The gentle puttering was that of an exhaust pipe; the subdued music we’d heard was, in fact, the walled-off sounds of the vehicle’s radio. Our protagonist exits the idling car, enters her home, and after a lengthy silence—in which repeat listeners will imagine her just-got-home routines—turns on some music. A measure or two go by, and the budding sound takes on a fullness, that of original Frank Ocean, as opposed to the fiction he’d been weaving.
Despite the richness of Channel Orange, at one time Ocean had let on that it might be his last album. He shared as much in an interview with the Guardian, just as they had dubbed the album 2012’s best. The questions and answers are transcribed, but they still fly fast. Ocean bats at the idea of his penning a novel next, instead of another musical project. There’s no good reason to doubt that Ocean could prove a polymath. But, his next musical project confirmed, there’s great reason to rejoice that Channel Orange won’t turn to static with nothing on the other side.