That summer, I received a 3 a.m. email from a student of mine who’d gone on to high school, checking in with me about her freshman year. She told me to listen to a mixtape by a new singer she liked. I looked him up. It’s no hyperbole to say I’d never before heard anyone who sounded like Frank Ocean. I’d never heard soul- or R&B-inspired vocals paired with lyrics that moved so recklessly beyond the purview of how I understood those genres—words that emerged from the familiar only to blossom into pathos, surrealism, and irreverence.
A week later, a demo version of the song “Thinkin Bout You” began circulating online, leaked via the Tumblr account Ocean (or Frank, as many of us call him, Frank Ocean having earned his way into the esteemed pantheon of black people whom other black people call by first name as though we enjoy a personal relationship) maintains. The song blends a sedated, downtempo beat with Ocean’s plaintive vocals—moving at times into a strained falsetto that my grandparents’ generation would probably find pitiful, and that my generation seems to perceive as endearing and honest in its limitations. “Thinkin Bout You” would become the opening song when Ocean’s first album, Channel Orange, was released in 2012. With it, I was hooked. So, it seemed, was everyone I knew.
Listening to Channel Orange is sort of like having a sleepover at your best friend’s house and hearing them sing in the shower in the morning. It’s like driving home late at night from a party where you were kissed by someone you pined after and never knew liked you back, and yell-singing along when the song of the summer comes on the radio. It’s at once nostalgic and [afro]futuristic, mundane and bizarre.
The album immediately seared itself into the hearts of a black millennial vox populi, becoming an unapologetic masterwork for a group of people increasingly defining themselves at the intersection of lived experience and possibility. And in this way, the work is oddly reminiscent of Mockingbird. Lee returns readers to the sleepy Southern hometown in which most of us never actually lived—a place where even the terrorism of a lynch mob and the specter of unjust death are hushed by the charm of childhood adventure and a young girl’s steadfast belief in her father’s integrity. As Mockingbird revisits the racist hierarchies of 1930s Alabama through a hazy lens of make-believe games and pecan trees, Channel Orange spins tales of drug addiction, sex work, and class divides between the ache of lost love and the click-whir of a tape rewinding.
Then summer ended, as it is wont to do. And it was cold, and then warm again, and suddenly Channel Orange was a year old, and then more time passed and it was two years old, and at some point the thing that was new and beautiful was no longer new or beautiful enough and people started asking for something else. Somewhere lies an invisible and intangible rubric, by which some works of art are deemed classics—a status that effectively protects the artist from facing slander or even ever having to produce something good ever again. To Kill A Mockingbird is in that category. So is The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Illmatic. The Sixth Sense. But Channel Orange, evidently, is not. Rather than being viewed as a sufficient, self-contained masterwork, Ocean’s audiences have taken it as the promise of more. More memories, more beauty, more nostalgia. And Ocean, for his part, has encouraged it—whether or not it’s a promise he can keep.