Reminiscing About The Importance Of Frank Ocean In R&B Music And Beyond
With Channel ORANGE, Ocean revived my love for R&B. He set a new standard for other rising artists, he inspired others to be fearless, break boundaries and give the finger to the old cishet formula within songwriting.
By Ruby Mora
Those who listen religiously to the current iterations of R&B, funk, and neo soul probably think of Channel ORANGE (CO) when someone mentions singer/songwriter Frank Ocean. Mr. Ocean, the lyrically and sonically transcendent artist behind the masterpiece of an album, solidified his place in the music industry with the release of this album, and after five years it stands strong as one of most groundbreaking albums of modern R&B.
When CO dropped, critics went batshit over it, and for good reason. Reviewers from all ends of the music industry were praising the album’s unique tracks, vivid sounds and raw lyrics. Melissa Locker from Time Magazine summed up the effect of the album pretty well, stating that it is “a mature album, especially from one so young. The fact that no two songs sound alike show a virtuoso on the rise. The lyrics reveal a self-awareness that comes with maturity, but also show a young man in flux.”
Prior to CO, Ocean had two EPs under his belt, along with songwriting credits with artists including Brandy, John Legend, and Alicia Keys. CO has grown to become a classic and important part of modern R&B music which granted Ocean a well-deserved position within the music industry. Channel ORANGE told such vivid and honest stories in a way that most artists at the time wouldn’t have thought of doing–that, or they were too afraid to.
Channel ORANGE was a revolutionary album that needed to be created and released at that time that it did because the industry needed a shake up. The album introduce new ways of expressing emotions and topics including intimacy, fame, lust, identity, unrequited love, and a fusion of others.
Those who had the opportunity to listen to the album prior to its release speculated that many of the songs such as “Thinkin Bout You” and “Bad Religion” may have centered a relationship between two men, which at the time was almost unheard of in R&B, especially when so many musical genres didn’t typically have lyrical content that fell outside of a cis-heteronormative relationship.
Ocean wrote a letter on his Tumblr in response to the speculation of his sexuality, which resulted in him not placing a label on himself, but confirming that his first love was a man. Ocean released nostalgia, ULTRA through his own means against the wishes of his label at the time and he used the internet to control the way that he revealed his experiences to the public, which ended up being a liberating and inspiring act, especially for millions within the LGBTQ+ community.
During the four-year gap between Channel ORANGE and Ocean’s most recent album, Blond, fans asked different versions of the same two questions: Where is Frank? and Where is the new album? We were elated when the Blond was released–it is a whole other realm of genius in itself where Ocean explores immortality through modern technology and delves deeper into his sexuality and self-discovery.
There’s a contrast between the release of CO and Blond, in that there was no formal release with the latter. Ocean broke out of the top 40 mold even further than before by releasing an additional and very abstract album before releasing Blond, called Endless. A surprise livestream brought in the surreal and mostly instrumental album that ended up being the key to freeing Ocean from his prior label, making him an independent artist by the time Blond was released. It was released both alone and with a magazine that developed some of the themes within the album. No marketing, no ads, and no gimmicks.
Before CO was released, I only listened to a fraction of R&B released after the beginning of the new millennium, mainly because I was continuously in awe of the sacred 90s R&B that my mother raised me on. Most R&B made around 2010, consisted of songs centered around lovemaking, relationships and missing someone. 90s R&B did include these too, but the formula got so tiring post 2000.
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I knew at the time was that something needed to change–something different needed to evolve within R&B and then Frank Ocean came into my life. With Channel ORANGE, Ocean revived my love for R&B. He set a new standard for other rising artists, he inspired others to be fearless, break boundaries and give the finger to the old cishet formula within songwriting. There still is an element of stigma around queer-centric lyrics, but the release of CO allowed for more artists within the genre to openly create more inclusive music with bold lyrics.
Those outside of Ocean’s inner circle will never truly know what it took to create Channel ORANGE and Blond, but what we do know is that so much of Ocean is in his work, and the universe and those who reside in it can only hope that he blesses us with more when he is ready.
About the Author: Ruby Mora is a freelance writer and music photographer whose writing focuses on pop culture, identity, and feminism through a Latinx perspective. She’s written and photographed for the Philadelphia-based music site Rock On Philly.