“It succinctly defines me as an artist for where I am right now and that was the aim. It’s about the stories. If I write 14 stories that I love, then the next step is to get the environment of music around it to best envelop the story and all kinds of sonic goodness.” – Frank Ocean
The greatest gift that could ever be offered is a good story. Films. Paintings. Books. Songs. A well-crafted story disconnects the audience from what is present and places them into a different space. This may be the past. This may be the future. But never now.
In his rawest form, Frank Ocean is a master storyteller. Clicking on the television, Frank takes us into a surreal landscape set against a backdrop of palm trees and ends with us just outside his door in the pouring rain. Yet somehow, channel ORANGE is much more than just a beautiful concept album or a fantastic trip across the globe through the eyes of others. Despite us entering into this seemingly unrelatable world, Frank perfectly encapsulates the feeling of existential longing, heartbreak, addiction, and nostalgia almost as if we experienced it alongside him.
Beginning with some muttered voices, a text notification, and the start of a PlayStation One, Start immediately sends us into a state of nostalgia.
Just as the sounds of Street Fighter ends, Frank holds back no punches. The intro leads into the lead single Thinkin Bout You, a tale of a relationship just out of his grasp.
No, I don’t like you, I just thought you were cool enough to kick it
Got a beach house I could sell you in Idaho
Frank’s verses alternate between exaggerations and contradictions as he is insecure about his own feelings towards this person but also wants them around. However, there are some truths mixed in as he admits that he cries when he thinks about them. At every possible truth, he pulls back with a contradiction Since you don’t think I love you / I just thought you were cute. He’s afraid of commitment, or non-reciprocation, or perhaps this is just a coping mechanism for him to prove that he doesn’t care about the person after they left him. Therein lies the beauty of this song, every listener can interpret these lines differently based on their own experiences. Yet the truth comes out during the pre-chorus and chorus.
I’ve been thinkin’ bout you, do you think about me still?
do ya, do ya?
Or do you not think so far ahead
Cause I been thinkin’ bout forever
He still misses them and frequently thinks about what they could have been.
The interlude, Fertilizer, is the first real instance of letting us know that Frank is flipping through the channels. This also lets us know that Thinkin Bout You was a personal moment he felt rather than it just being a part of the television. With the other person on his mind and setting the mood, Frank watches channel ORANGE. Like Sweet Life says, the best song isn’t the single. As gorgeous as Thinkin Bout You is, there’s nothing about it that screams fantasy or surreal.
On Fertilizer, he pauses on possibly a commercial or the intro of some sitcom that ends with a laugh track, however, the lyrics are far from comedic. The cover of James Faulteroy’s song reveals a person desperately trying to maintain their relationship even if it means getting hurt in the process.
I’ll take bullshit if that’s all you got
Sierra Leone takes us into suburbia and once again disguises a painful story under bright instrumentals and vocals. Frank sings of getting a girl pregnant and her having a child, however, he masks this incident with beautiful imagery and metaphors. Horses gallop to her throne … Her pink skies will keep me warm
Tid bits of intuition that I be gettin’ abandon mission
Abandon mission, you must be kiddin’, this shit feelin’ different
Shit feelin’ too good to me
His gut tells him to pull out and stop, but like any other teenager, he doesn’t care. This is also possibly referred to in his visual album Endless on the interlude Mine. Why does the ecstasy depresses me so?
Sweet Life and Super Rich Kids more or less stay on the same channel and focus on one story. A story about the dark side of growing up surrounded by wealth and grandeur. Written from a second person point of view, Sweet Life is the more satirical of the two.
Domesticated paradise, palm trees and pools
The water’s blue, swallow the pill
Keepin’ it surreal, whatever you like
Whatever feels good, whatever takes you mountain high
Keepin’ it surreal, not sugar-free
Referencing The Matrix, Frank compares the people living in the “domesticated paradise” to those that choose to take the blue pill, a pill that allows you to live in sweet, blissful ignorance. The line My TV ain’t HD, that’s too real has a couple different meanings. One, the person simply isn’t as rich as they think they are and they can’t afford an HD TV. Two, they are ignorant because they believe that what is shown in HD is more “real” than standard definition. And three, it’s a metaphor for the person’s life where they prefer the surreal to reality because they are afraid of it.
The short skit Not Just Money is a quick glance into reality, wedged between two surreal tracks. A mom (Frank’s friend’s mom to be specific) scolds her son for being careless with his cash and his beliefs that he’ll just make more money later. It’s a very sobering interlude that clashes with the next track.
Super Rich Kids’ glamorous lens takes us into the life of a … well super rich kid. Throughout the song, there is a constant friction between the unfulfilled demand of superficial goods and the desperate search for real emotions. The need for real love is hidden behind the luxuries of white lines of cocaine, marijuana, Jaguar car rides, and fancy wines. Earl Sweatshirt’s monotone verse reveals the sadder side of paradise by mentioning affairs the father is having and general neglect from the wealthy parents.
Pappy done latch-keyed us
Toying with Raggy Anns and Mammy done had enough
Brash as fuck, breaching all these aqueducts
Don’t believe us
Treat us like we can’t erupt, yup
With another click of the remote, the channel changes to Pilot Jones and the theme switches to addiction.
In the sky up above, the birds
I saw the sky like I never seen before
You thought I was above you
Above this in so many ways
But if I got a condo on a cloud
Then I guess you can stay at my place
The song begins with Frank’s weariness of his lover’s drug dealing and using lifestyle. He initially tells her to fly alone. Yet later on, he sings the verse above, giving into her influences. Beneath the surface of the drug dealer lover narrative, it’s another story about putting up with abuse. Again, this could be interpreted as physical, emotional, or mental. In the specific case of Frank, it’s most likely emotional. Despite knowing that the girl is bad for him, he’s too addicted to her to let go.
Cause she was and you are madly involved, madly involved
Unlike the other tracks, Crack Rock is a lot more literal and straightforward than the other tracks that may have multiple meanings. Frank was influenced by the stories of his grandfather and sitting in on the AA meetings that his grandfather was once a mentor at. The song openly states that drugs and domestic life do not mix, and that one can lose themselves to this lifestyle. Frank also ties in race by mentioning corrupt cops that push these drugs onto minorities, particularly African Americans, but then do not care when they are killed.
Pyramids is the greatest song Frank has ever written and the climax of the album. If you try to argue otherwise, you will fail. Miserably. There’s no debating it. You may have a favorite song or another song that relates to you more, as do I. But there is simply no denying that Pyramids is a masterpiece and here is why.
We’ve already established that Frank is a great storyteller, but now we are visualizing a story unfold from multiple viewpoints while connecting two different settings in both time and place.
The jewel of Africa, jewel
What good is a jewel that ain’t still precious?
How could you run off on me? How could you run off on us?
The song begins with the scene of a luxurious, Egyptian empire where Cleopatra had been kidnapped. The narrator of the song at this point is the pharaoh, opposite Cleopatra. After “sending the cheetahs” to find her and the thief, he realizes that she had ran off with another man. She is now dead to him, his legion has fallen, and he is heartbroken. The idea and image of the great Queen Cleopatra is shattered.
No more, she lives no more, serpent in her room
No more, he has killed Cleopatra, Cleopatra
The next half of the song transitions into a modern day representation of what has occurred. Cleopatra, or the girl, ran off with a man who has now become her pimp and she works at the Pyramid, his strip club.
Top floor motel suite twisting my cigars
Floor model TV with the VCR
Got rubies in my damn chain
Whip ain’t got no gas tank but it still got woodgrain
This is where it switches to the point of view of the pimp. There is no such thing as a top floor motel suite. It’s probably the third floor of some shitty motel, but the pimp talks about their lifestyle as if they’re living the sweet life. Whip ain’t got no gas tank, but it still got woodgrain refers to a car that has no gas, but its interior still looks fly as fuck. This is comparable to their relationship. It’s manipulative, lifeless, and nonfunctioning, but they still make it look exotic.
But your love ain’t free no more, baby
But your love ain’t free no more
The second verse of the second loops back to the first narrator. He now only sees his girl when she is a prostitute and he is paying for her love. The song is incredible in the sense that Frank can compare a failing relationship with a cheater to a great betrayal of ancient Egypt. The song covers everything that the album has been about up until this point. The first man still goes to his girl as a prostitute even though she belongs to someone else which reveals his addiction. The faux-lavish life of the pimp brings back elements of Super Rich Kids and Sweet Life. On top of everything, Pyramids is the peak of the album as it slowly descends into the themes of escapism.
Girl you know you’re lost
Lost in the thrill of it all
Miami, Amsterdam, Tokyo, Spain, lost
Los Angeles, India, lost on a train, lost
Continuing the themes of ownership from Pyramids, Lost details the story of a drug dealer who uses his girlfriend as a drug mule. No matter where she goes, she’s never really content which is why he wishes for her to someday leave the drug business and have a family of her own.
White’s a brief guitar interlude by John Mayer. What else can I say?
Monks, my personal favorite track, takes the audience to South Asia as Frank compares his experience with a girl on tour to a tale of runaway love.
Planning a runaway, young at heart
You found a boyfriend
And now you wanna get away, get away
Just a virgin lover on a getaway, get away
The girl, on her own path, chooses to run away with Frank, leaving behind her past and family.
We made it safely
Even with your father’s army trailing us
We escaped him
Even with his archer’s bows at our backs
What a great escape
But there’s a long way still in fact
We’re lost in a jungle underneath these clouds
There’s a monsoon that never ends
A coke white tiger woke us from our slumber
To guide and protect us til the end
Despite being able to escape, Frank tells her that they still have a lot of obstacles to overcome but their faith will be able to keep them alive.
Bad Religion moves us out of the jungles and into the cab of a non-English speaking taxi driver. Another bold and earnest track, Frank reveals his love for another man to someone he knows cannot understand him. Growing up in a Christian household, Frank has talked about rarely participating in church events. This makes his secret and pain much deeper as he fears judgement. It’s a melancholic swan song for Frank as he sings of a forbidden, unrequited love full of anguish and resignation.
It’s a, it’s a bad religion
To be in love with someone
Who could never love you
Pink Matter, my second favorite track, is a struggle between Frank and his own conscience regarding the matters of women, pleasure, and existence.
What if the sky and the stars are for show
And the aliens are watching live
From the purple matter?
Do these things even matter in the grand scheme of things? In the end, Frank gives into pleasure.
Since you been gone
I been having withdrawals
You were such a habit to call
I ain’t myself at all had to tell myself “Naw
She better with some fella with a regular job”
Andre 3000’s verse hits deep. Like Frank, he struggles with deciding what he wants out of the relationship because although he misses her, she deserves someone better. He adds another punishing line at the end Switch worlds and we can huddle then , saying that if it was a different world maybe things could have worked out.
Forrest Gump is a direct reference to the movie and another outlet for Frank to write about his former love and boyfriend. Sung from the point of view of Jenny, the song states that no matter how far Forrest runs or goes, he is still running on her mind.
I’m remembering you
If this is love
I know it’s true
I won’t forget you
With his other song Voodoo playing in the background, End is set inside a car outside of Frank’s house as rain is pouring outside. The lyrics speak of reconciliation as a married couple put aside their differences for the betterment of their children.
Golden Girl is the true end to channel ORANGE, although it was only released on the CD version of the album.
If we build a house in paradise, will we get to heaven still?
If we don’t have to live through hell just to get to heaven
I’mma stay right here, with you
Now on a tropical island, Frank sings to a girl that he believes is the one for him. As the track concludes with the sounds of waves crashing and seagulls chirping, it lures you into believing that it is a happy ending to Thinkin Bout You. However, at the end of the track the familiar clicking of the TV remote in Fertilizer appears as the sound fades to white noise and the station shuts off.
A bittersweet end.
“I wanted to create worlds that were rosier than mine. I tried to channel overwhelming emotions.”