How We’ll Judge Frank Ocean’s “Channel Orange”


I came really close to listening to Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange and writing a proper review, but the more I thought about this album, the less sense that made. Even if you still haven’t listened to Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange in full, you probably already have some feelings about it.

Frank Ocean’s coming out has sparked a bubbling pool of very different reactions. There are people who are hateful and angry, people who are proud and supportive, and people who are completely neutral about the issue, as if they’ve just been told that their dog has a hidden extra nipple hidden under its hair.

“Okay, that was unexpected, but whatever.”

Extra nipples are whatever, but it’s 2012, and homosexuality is still a hot button issue. If you’re on the Internet, you’ve seen this. It’s impossible to ignore, and it’s wrong to dismiss as a non-factor. We shouldn’t ignore that Frank Ocean came out. Just like we shouldn’t ignore that Eminem is white or that A$AP Rocky is from New York or that Nicki Minaj is a woman. Yes, maybe these things shouldn’t change how we judge the music, but they do matter. These factors not only affect the music, but they sometimes give a weight to a release that’s about more than just the sounds we end up hearing.

Some of the best songs in the history of music are ones that meant something not only because of a good melody or effective lyrics, but because they spoke to a certain time, a hard-to-capture feeling, and the very specific climate that shaped them. Think “The Times They Are a-Changin'” and “Give Peace A Chance,” or “What’s Going On.” And not to say that Frank Ocean’s subtle allusions to homosexuality in his lyrics carry that kind of weight, but it’s hard to think of a better reflection of cultural shift in music than the one emerging now.

When you read about Frank Ocean’s coming out in the media now, you’ll probably notice a very supportive stance being taken, even by the mostly neutral media outlets. These views may seem universal, but they are not. Since coming out, Frank Ocean has received death threats. People on social networking sites have called him a faggot, expressed disgust, and vowed to never listen to his music again. One comment on a post about his coming out directed Ocean to “die of AIDS.”

These views don’t show up on everybody’s radars because most publications maintain some level of responsibility, and to be homophobic in 2012 is to be ignorant. There are a lot of things you can chalk up to religion or culture or whatever, but we are at a point when homophobia is as inexcusable as racism, and the people who are still maliciously homophobic can be safely filed into the ignorant category. Thankfully, many of their voices are restricted to Facebook, Twitter, and the comments section of articles by more thoughtful people.

What we’re left with may be a skewed view on what’s going on—an overly positive reaction from a group of people who generally share the same opinion on the matter. If you read 10 pieces about Frank Ocean’s coming out, you’ll most likely get 10 opinions that praise Frank Ocean, and rightly so.

But how will this affect how Ocean’s new album will be received? At this point, giving Channel Orange a negative review is almost like adding friction to the momentum Frank has built. Instead, we’ll probably see a lot of inflated positive reactions from people who recognize the importance of what Frank is doing outside of music and factor that in with this project. If you’re expecting Channel Orange to live up to the importance of the issue Frank has brought up, you might be tempted to inflate the hype. But maybe that’s an okay thing to do right now. Maybe this album is more than just a collection of songs from a young artist.

Simultaneously, Channel Orange perches atop a curious balance. While its existence and song craft make it a statement album to an extent, it is not overtly political or purposefully shocking, tethered to potentially burdensome context by the circumstances of Frank’s life rather than some overarching mission in his lyrics. Channel Orange and the controversy surrounding it raise Frank up as a thoroughly modern star, one onto whom we can project the issues, dangers, and aspirations of our time, even when they are not necessarily present in his music.

This album is forever going to stand for more than the forward-thinking debut of a rising star. Instead of being judged simply for its artistic merit, it will be viewed within the context it has been delivered. While plenty of people are going to claim “it’s all about the music,” it’s impossible, even for professional critics, not to consider all the other factors at play.

No matter how good Channel Orange is, there is strong likelihood that it will be immortalized as great for reasons way more powerful than the music. Maybe that’s what we need right now, when popular music often exists in a very separate world than “real life.” Try to judge Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange simply by the music and you’d be missing what may be the most important part of the picture: real life in 2012, and an album that captures an important turning point in this constantly evolving culture we live with.

  • D.Fox

    So is it any good or what :-P

  • SK

    Is Forest Gump about his bisexuality or am I over analyzing?

    I thought the album was really good, I woke up this morning and was checking FB on my phone when I saw the album was released. I spent an extra hour in bed just listening to the album all the way through. My favorites were Pyramids, Sweet Life, Thinking About You, and Super Rich Kids. Dunno if its better than Nostaliga Ultra, I’ll have to give it another listen all the way through before I decide on that.

  • PancakeMcKennz

    I would like to say that Frank’s life shouldn’t influence how I think of this album, but you’re right–a person’s life and characteristics can change how you review something. Eminem’s one of my favorite rappers, not just because he can rap exceptionally well, but because he represents my hometown.

    When it comes to Channel Orange, it seems like one should judge this album against Nostalgia Ultra considering the latter should’ve been his debut anyway. (I haven’t heard all of Nostalgia, so I’m not judging based off of that). Out of all that I have heard, Frank’s lyrics have for the most part always been kinda cryptic and poetic.

    In today’s music scene, Frank’s honesty about his sexuality will give his music a more intimate feeling in comparison to other artists, but his music was like this before he came out. What got him and The Weeknd notice in the past couple years is that they were doing sounds very different from the current R&B scene. And it sucks if people don’t like his music now just because he says he’s bisexual. It proves what you’re saying: it’s not just about the music. We identify with person singing the music.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that we should like Frank for being Frank (as a noun, not an adjective). Being bisexual is a part of him, but it’s not all of him. It’s just that now, his sound is not the only thing separating him from other people in the game, and the thing that does separate him is going to stay at the forefront of reviewers’ minds because it’s kinda a taboo subject. Some people don’t even belive bisexuality exists.

    It’ll be interesting to see what people will say about channel Orange if they consider his sexuality, but I think the reviews will be favorable simply because any song Frank makes is better than a lot of R&B on the radio right now.

  • Mike

    You’re right. We can’t ignore Frank’s homosexuality, the fact that Eminem’s white, and Nicki Minaj’s gender. It’s impossible to ignore, and it’s wrong to dismiss as a non-factor. I agree that these things shouldn’t change how we judge the music, but they do matter. People tend to relate to people who they share common characteristics with, such as gender, race, and sexuality. It shouldn’t affect how we judge the music, but these factors add up to a bigger picture – like music that captures the cultural situation of our age. 2012 may be known as the year when the most homosexuals come out of the closet because Frank Ocean made them feel comfortable doing it. Just a thought.

  • g

    Very well written & interesting point of view! Thank you!

  • Alex Parker

    I just wish everyone would stop give a fuck. I knew this shit was gonna end up overshadowing the actual album. I’m of the “extra nipple” variety, myself. You’re gay/bi/whatever? Cool, have fun with it. If I were gay I wouldn’t make a large deal of it. I don’t care what people think or say. Backlash? Fuck it. Shun me? Fuck it. I cannot be harmed by anyone other than myself. People sacrifice their invincibility for public favor.

  • Liz

    Great article Con!

  • Ryan

    Great opinion article, but I don’t think it carries as much weight once you have actually listened to “Channel Orange.” I wish that this was the case because I think that addressing social issues is an important characteristic of music, but after Frank’s unexpected letter, his CD fails to really follow this trend. Forest Gump seems to be the only song that gives off a similar vibe. Good CD, but not the game changer I expected.

  • David

    I love how it’s actually the media making a big deal about Frank Ocean’s bisexuality, not the fans/masses. I could care less about who he screws as long as it doesn’t make him a crappy artists. If he starts dating a dude and his music gets sucky, I’ll stop listening. If he started dating a woman and his music took a hit, I’d stop listening. I think we all need to realize being gay/bisexual isn’t new: Lil Wayne’s been in the closet for nearly a decade.

  • Buddy Blank


    I’d take another listen to Bad Religion if I were you.

  • ParttimePReachr

    Vibe with Confusion on this but its rather unfortunate that there will be no true objective review of the album. As a long time fan and avid reader of this blog and Complex, I’m curious how the masses feel about Frank Ocean and due to the weighty and contextual significance of the album, i’m not sure we’ll hear a genuine review. I mean…who’s really gonna call his shit mediocre without kinda looking like an asshole

  • word

    I think Frank Ocean is brave. I am a huge fan. However, being a heterosexual dude, i find myself conscious of him singing a love song about a dude. and where i used to sing along, i find myself liking the music a lot, but not being all the way into it. He’s amazing, but i can’t sing about a guy running through my head. i am still a huge fan of his music, but i think if changes how i listen to the music. but maybe that’s just for now. i may get used to it and sing about dudes all day son but in a cool straight way. and he still sings for the ladies. *sips lean*

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  • Confusion

    @ParttimePReachr I think you’re right. We may not get a genuine review. I don’t think I’d be able to write one.

    Also, I haven’t spent enough time with the album to speak too much on it, but it definitely comes across as much better than mediocre.

  • Fear

    @Alex Parker Frank isn’t making a big deal of coming out, its the media and originally he was going to put the confession on his album’s inside cover.. We’re just discussing the interesting fact of how someone will review this with said information on his bisexuality and today’s culture.

  • kristyn

    beautiful & thoughtful article, thank you!

  • HeyWhatsupKev

    good writing and good points made in this article…

    I agree though that this album is probably going to be heavily proclaimed as a “Album for the ages” regardless of how well it is received.

    I haven’t heard the album yet, just the early released songs…i seriously have tried to NOT read any reviews until i hear the entire album for myself.

  • Chris


  • NateEzra2

    Ok, I might have responded to early on the other feed about the 110k sells. Its interesting that after reading this article and how I now am reading to much into his music looking for sexual undertones. To me its kinda like I first heard that Freddy Mercury was gay. I said “who cares his music is ageless.”

    I agree with the fact that if you are a person that is uncomfortable with the GBLT community and will judge a person’s art based off that fact is completely missing the meaning or the message that person is trying to get across.

    Channel Orange is going to be timeless to me for the fact that it is rare to hear an artist transcend many genres in one album. It has a Jazz/Hip-Hop/RnB/Rock/Blues/Funk feel. Its easily comparable to an NERD or a Parliament Funkadelic album. If you dont believe me then take your uneducated ass to the store and get ALL the NERD and Parliament shit you can find and listen.

  • Justin

    @word I understand it’s uncomfortable to sing to a song where the pronouns don’t match with how you’d like to say it. I’ve been doing it all my life. I’m kinda happy on the inside that I can sing with a song where the singer is male and he’s singing about a guy.
    I can sing Forrest Gump all day long. It’s nice to have a solid, catchy, pop-r&b male-male love song.
    But this album is a standout by its sound. I was gonna listen to this album so much regardless. I love the funk guitar riffs and spacey feel that just works with his insight. Believe me, if this album was all about him being gay(which I’m not saying, sexuality is more complicated than we make it) and it sucked then people would easily be able to attack him. Because the album is so good it’s in an arena of praise and uncertainty with people who aren’t comfortable with sexuality. I’m sure Pitchfork wouldn’t give a bad album 9.5/10 I’d love to know what they’d give Adam Lambert’s albums.
    And I have not had a song shake my car as much as Pilot Jones.

  • solodolo187

    wait a minute, my dog really does have a hidden extra nipple hidden under its hair… spooky

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  • poh pih

    i hope you listened to it

  • sleep

    I think it’s great that he has come out, but unfortunately this album is terrible. It’s so unbelievably boring that I didn’t think it was ever going to end.

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