time warp

10 years ago today, Frank Ocean changed the game with ‘Channel Orange’

Screenshot: Saturday Night Live, NBC

“Whoever you are, wherever you are… I’m starting to think we’re a lot alike.”

That’s how Frank Ocean opened a Tumblr post he shared a decade and some change ago. In the note, he went on to detail the story of his first love: Two summers spent with someone for whom he fell hard, someone who changed his life—someone who wouldn’t reciprocate his feelings, or perhaps was too afraid to acknowledge them.

That Ocean refers to that first love as “he” isn’t the point. But it was significant back in 2012. It still is today.

That note was published just a few days prior to the release of Frank Ocean’s highly anticipated first album, Channel Orange. As a member of the zeitgeist-defining Odd Future music collective (which featured Tyler, The Creator, Earl Sweatshirt, and Syd, among others) with an acclaimed mixtape already under his belt (Nostalgia, Ultra), expectations were high for the singer-songwriter’s official debut.

As some critics with advanced access to the album began to note, a handful of its more lovelorn songs used “he” pronouns, and rumors began to swirl. That Tumblr post was originally intended for Channel Orange‘s liner notes, but Ocean seemingly dropped it early to get ahead of the speculation, to let the work stand on its own without all of the probing curiosity.

Though the talk carried on, Channel Orange speaks for itself. As a whole, the album is intoxicating in both its sweep and specificity, traversing genres and breaking down conventions in an artistic statement that feels just as groundbreaking a decade on.

Of course, those “he’s” do matter. At a time well before Lil Nas X was kissing men on live television—before marriage equality was even legalized nationwide—the idea that a Black, male artist could be open about their sexuality, their queerness, was unheard of, especially for a promising young artist on the rise.

In gorgeous lead single “Thinkin Bout You,” Ocean croons, “My eyes don’t shed tears, but boy they pour when I’m thinkin’ ’bout you”—a heartsick lament that can easily be traced back his “life-changing” love all those summers ago.

Later on, in the penultimate track “Forrest Gump,” Ocean wryly riffs on Tom Hanks’ Best Picture winner, singing of an early crush who’s “running on [his] mind.” When he remarks his eponymous infatuation is “so buff and so strong,” it’s hard not to get goosebumps—at that point, how often were we hearing men singing so freely about their attraction to other men?

Brief as these moments may be, Channel Orange was opening doors.

Elsewhere, Ocean spins stories about a drug dealer who’s in love with the woman who pushes his product (“Lost“), two doomed romances separated by centuries (“Pyramids”), and some super rich kids (“Super Rich Kids“). They may not feel as intimately connected to Ocean’s own story as a song like “Thinkin Bout You,” but it’s through them that the album’s grand vision becomes clear.

Each song, in its way, deals with heartaches: Nervousness about news loves, the tension around maintaining those loves, and the grief that can set in when they’re gone. Feelings we’ve all experienced.

With that Tumblr post—ostensibly a “coming out”—Ocean boldly distinguished himself from his forebears and his contemporaries as a queer artist in the public eye. But through the emotive poetry of Channel Orange, he showed the world how his story wasn’t all that different from everyone else’s.

Ten years on, Frank Ocean’s debut stands as a landmark queer album, undeniably, but its legacy is one that supersedes the need for such labels.

Whoever we are, wherever we are, Channel Orange reminds us we’re a lot alike.

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