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

frank ocean How Well Judge Frank Oceans 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.