This month, Frank Ocean’s first real album, Channel Orange, turned 10 years old, and writers couldn’t help but sing its praises as a highly regarded landmark of the 2010s. Except that the critical love was strangely limited in the same way. For example, Rolling Stone said that Ocean’s second album, Blonde, which came out in 2016, “might have been bigger and more important than Channel Orange.” Stereogum also said that Blonde has “arguably passed [Channel Orange] in terms of influence and prestige.“
For those keeping track, Blonde is now “arguably” bigger, more important, more influential, and more prestigious than Channel Orange. That’s four (count ”em!) signs of “greatness” that all point away from Channel Orange. As far as critical consensus goes, the word “arguably” almost doesn’t seem to be needed at this point. Blonde has overshadowed (or “outshined” or “eclipsed“) its predecessor. When it first came out, it got enthusiastic but somewhat hesitant reviews. Many critics, including me, thought it was somewhere between a masterpiece and a mess.
Consider that when Blonde came out, Pitchfork gave it a 9.0, which was great but not as good as Channel Orange’s 9.5. However, three years later, it was named the best album of the 2010s. (Channel Orange came in at No. 10, which is still a great spot, but not as good as No. 1.) Rolling Stone’s list of the best albums of the decade put Blonde higher than Channel Orange, at No. 12 instead of Channel Orange’s (much too low) No. 37. But on the magazine’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list, which was made just one year later, Blonde rose all the way to No. 79. Only three albums from the 2010s (Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, and Beyoncé’s Lemonade) did better, so Blonde may now be thought of as the fourth best record of that decade. (Channel Orange, on the other hand, came in at No. 148, below Grace by Jeff Buckley and ahead of John Prine’s self-titled debut.)
Channel Orange seems to be seen as both a classic of its time and not as good as Blonde. But is this really about these Frank Ocean albums, or does it say more about the people who write about music for a living? I have a theory that there are actually two 2010s: the early 2010s and the late 2010s. Channel Orange and Blonde are a big part of the music of the early 2010s and the late 2010s.
I remember when Channel Orange came out, which was in the summer of 2012. I was ready for this record, as was almost everyone who cared about popular music at the time. I liked and wrote about Ocean’s 2011 mixtape, Nostalgia, Ultra, which showed him to be a singer-songwriter with a lot of potential that he was just starting to realize. Now, everything pointed toward a big breakthrough.
Ocean performed “Bad Religion,” one of the most emotional songs on the album, on Jimmy Fallon’s Late Night show the night before the album came out. The song touched on the themes of unrequited love and personal identity that Ocean talked about in a widely read Tumblr post a week before. In that post, he wrote in heartfelt and poetic language that he had fallen in love with a man in 2009. This letter would affect how Channel Orange was talked about and written about after it was sent. First of all, it made Frank Ocean an artist that people liked and wanted to do well.
Also on Fallon, it was said that Channel Orange was out right now, a week earlier than expected. Since it was early in the 2010s, before streaming really took off, the rush release was meant to stop piracy for a short time. And it worked: after Fallon, many of us did buy the album download right away. We wanted to hear Orange right away, and it became one of the first “event” albums of the social media era right away. In 2012, it was still unusual for “everyone” to hear an album for the first time at the same time online, and the impromptu late-night listening party added to the importance of Channel Orange.
When you look at it from a bigger picture, Channel Orange came out near the end of Barack Obama’s first term, and it pointed to a future in which Obama would become the first Democrat since Franklin D. Roosevelt to win two presidential elections with a majority of the vote. In Ocean, a lot of people saw a different kind of transformative figure: a forward-thinking paradigm-shifter whose sudden rise seemed to show that queer Americans were making real social progress. Even Obama, who was officially against gay marriage when he moved into the White House, only changed his mind two months before Channel Orange came out. This made Channel Orange more than just a great album at the time; it was also a feel-good story, an optimistic sign that good things were on the way, and the perfect cultural sign of the Obama era.
Is it possible that these things that were popular at the time have made Channel Orange seem old? When you compare Channel Orange to Blonde, you can see that some parts of it feel much older than ten years. The times when each album came out are like yin and yang. Channel Orange came out when it seemed like recent progressive gains couldn’t be taken back, while Blonde and the even more radical Endless came out at the end of the Obama era, as the dread-inducing murk of Trump’s America loomed. Because of this, both albums sound different in 2022.
When Pitchfork put Blonde at the top of its list of the best albums of the 2010s, the music site retconned it as a record that best showed how it felt to be alive in the cursed late 2010s. Doreen St. Felix, a writer, said that 2016 made the political disaster that was already there clear. “People thought that we needed anthems to get us through the dark night. Big choruses, hooks as wide as road signs, and steady percussion that could keep us from falling apart. But our mood was slow, and patriotism was the problem, to begin with. We wanted the fuzzy, soft, and existential.”
Channel Orange used to seem “fuzzy,” “softened,” and “existential,” as well. When the album came out, it felt private, strange, and purposefully not commercial. That was part of what made Orange seem modern. But after Blonde’s much more extreme fragmentation, in which drums and most other instruments were left out to put more attention on Ocean’s pain and introspection, Orange suddenly seemed more upbeat and approachable, if also (maybe) less “real.” While the hopeful time period that Channel Orange brings to mind seems further away every day, the alienated interior soundscapes of Blonde feel as new as the morning sunrise. This is not just because they have had a huge impact on pop music, which is more “vibey” than ever before, but also because they are still important to listeners emotionally. If Channel Orange feels like a happy but far-off memory, Blonde is as real as the air you just breathed.
I’ve been listening to a lot of Channel Orange and Blonde lately, and before anything else, it should be said that it’s silly to compare them. Again, these albums go well with each other and offer very different (but equally masterful) experiences. At first, I didn’t know how I felt about Blonde, but now I think of it as an album that is totally unique to Ocean’s style. Critics were quick to put Ocean in a line with shape-shifting icons like Sly Stone, Stevie Wonder, and Prince after he released Channel Orange. All of these artists were able to make hugely successful pop music on their own very unique terms. But with Blonde, Ocean made a case for starting his own continuum, in which musicians in the 2010s and beyond would follow a path set by him and him alone.
This is probably why music writers now think Blonde is better than Channel Orange. It feels like a bigger deal. But, even though I think that record is creative and has a lot of power, my recent spins tell me that my heart still belongs to Channel Orange. I just think the songs are better, and I hear them more as songs than as set pieces with a vibe. (You can’t convince me that “Pyramids” is better than “Thinking About You” or “Forrest Gump,” for example.) As an album, it is more dynamic and well-rounded. It has the stripped-down gut-punches (“Bad Religion,” “Pink Matter”) that hint at Blonde, but it also has the catchy bangers (“Super Rich Kids,” “Lost”) that Frank mostly left behind on his second album.
Most importantly, Blonde would not exist if Channel Orange did not exist. First, Frank Ocean put together the first version of his masterpiece. Then he took it apart to make a second masterpiece that was more simple. Together, they show a unique journey through a dangerous and uncertain time.