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The genre-busting ‘Channel Orange’ turns 5 years old today, let’s talk about it

Frank Ocean’s debut studio album Channel Orange, one of the most seminal albums of the last decade, came out 5 years ago today.

It’s hard to overstate the importance and radicalism of Channel Orange when it came out on July 10th, 2012.

Frank Ocean and his label Def Jam were forced to release the album a week early because of fear it was going to be leaked but when Channel Orange dropped, it quite literally sent shockwaves through the hip-hop and r&b world.

Much of the surface attention about the album was the honesty by which Frank Ocean sung about his sexuality and his unrequited “first love” with another man.

Frank knew that lyrics on songs like “Forrest Gump” and “Bad Religion” would cause some confusion with the appearance of certain pronouns, so the songwriter published a letter on his Tumblr a week before the release of the album explaining his lyrics.

Frank’s note, which is so poetically well-written it’s almost frustrating, was initially written on a flight in December 2011 so it was clearly a topic of deep contemplation.

Perhaps Frank could’ve just let his fans and music critics figure the lyrics out for themselves, but surely there was an aspect of catharsis in being able to finally speak his truth.

Musically, Channel Orange may be the most complex r&b album in recent memory. It’s full of beautiful, emotive songwriting that often touches on some of the darkest subjects (“Crack Rock” will make your skin crawl) layered on top of impeccable and diverse production.

Helped on the production by Malay, a Grammy-award winner (for Channel Orange) who has worked with Zayn and John Legend, Frank shifted his style from an almost exclusively sampled approach on his introductory mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra to a completely instrumental production, drawing from elements of hip-hop, r&b, soul, funk, rock, and jazz.

Channel Orange is quite simply a masterpiece. The album is one of the catalysts for the alternative r&b renaissance at the time, generating the awful term “PBR&B,” as Frank Ocean suddenly became the r&b standard-bearer and spawned a whole genre of imitators.

Fans and critics alike fawned over Channel Orange. Ryan Dombal of Pitchfork wrote at the time,

“The 24-year-old has quickly proven himself to be among the most gifted singer-songwriters of his generation; he’s got the type of voice, wit, charm, smarts, and ineffable humanity that’s always hoped for, but never promised.”

Frank Ocean is a special artist. Channel Orange is a special album.

I turned 20 a week before the album came out and I’ll never forget that summer.

Go listen to “Pilot Jones” on repeat and enjoy your Monday.

Thanks Frank.