'Channel Orange' Found Frank Ocean Thinking About Forever

A landmark album for queer visibility, its personal dispatches helped define an era — even as its star retreated

Welcome to New Retro Week, a celebration of the biggest artists, hits, and cultural moments that made 2012 a seminal year in pop. MTV News is looking back to see what lies ahead: These essays showcase how today’s blueprint was laid a decade ago. Step into our time machine.

By Rob LeDonne

On July 4, 2012, Frank Ocean, one of the buzziest burgeoning musicians who had been steadily making a name for himself as a talented, innovative artist, posted a blog on Tumblr where he, without much fanfare, announced he was gay or, at the very least, bisexual.

"[Four] summers ago, I met somebody," he wrote in the all-caps declaration. "I was 19 years old. He was too. We spent that summer, and the summer after, together. Everyday almost. And on the days we were together, time would glide."

"By the time I realized I was in love, it was malignant," Ocean continued. "It was hopeless. There was no escaping, no negotiating with the feeling. No choice. It was my first love, it changed my life."

Deeply in the closet then myself, it was a stunning turn of events. A Black artist of his reputation and stature, who had already worked with Jay-Z, Kanye West, and was a regular Odd Future collaborator, announcing he had romantic feelings for people of the same gender was an extremely rare event. And it was on a blog, not coupled with a headline like “Frank Gets Frank” on the cover of People. He could have stayed mum, but Ocean announced his personal truth on his own terms without any idea how it would affect the trajectory of his rise. Ocean’s bold declaration of identity, just as his career was exploding and acclaim buiding, became a crucial moment for queer visibility in a new era of emerging artists, blazing a trail later followed and capitalized on by artists like Lil Nas X. In no uncertain terms, Frank had begun to pave a way.

Ten years later, the news almost seems quaint. While the LGBTQ+ community has in no way arrived at that glorious moment of complete equality, at least when it comes to pop culture, our personal uniqueness, the differences among us, and our inherent diversities are all causes for celebration. For a detractor to shine a negative light on such an announcement would now be looked upon as unacceptable, when for most of recorded human history, the opposite was true. It’s so sensational, it sounds akin to hyperbole.

If Ocean’s announcement was a lightning-in-a-bottle moment, the album he dropped shortly after was that all-too-rare second strike, quickly cementing him as one of the most respected and important names in music. Dubbed Channel Orange and released a week after the aforementioned Tumblr post, the 17-song album went on to stun critics with its bold sound, inventive nature, and unique voice. It garnered widespread critical acclaim, dominating year-end lists as the best album of 2012, and racked up Grammy nominations for Album of the Year and Best Urban Contemporary Album (winning the latter). Pitchfork even placed him “among the most gifted singer-songwriters of his generation.”

It’s a reputation that has only been bolstered in the decade since. “It has really become a touchstone album of the last 10 years, easily,” explains the music critic Craig Seymour. “I’m talking about not just in terms of its influence among listeners, but in terms of his peers in the industry who look at him as one of the great artists of our time.”

Seymour points out that in R&B alone, before Ocean’s heartfelt, warts-and-all lyrical flair and sharp instrumentation influenced artists ranging from SZA to Summer Walker, the genre was in an entirely different sphere. “Someone like Mary J. Blige’s style is a conversation, for example,” Seymour notes of one example why Channel Orange resonated. “She’s saying stuff like, ‘This man has done me wrong.’ Frank added a poetic style to R&B. It became more metaphorical.” The album’s melancholy penultimate track, “Forrest Gump,” memorably performed live at the 2013 Grammys, borrows a scene from the 1994 film of its title to convey Ocean’s deep feelings. “You run through my mind, boy,” he croons. “Oh, where’d you go, Forrest?”

“R&B felt like it was getting a little stale for a while, and all of the sudden [this] came along to turn that on its head,” music journalist Hugh McIntyre says. “It’s exciting when people do that in the genres to cause a significant shift in culture. How many artists today would not have a chance if he hadn’t shaken things up?”

As 2012 chugged along, I have vivid memories of crashing with my friends on 149th Street and Broadway in New York City and falling in love with Channel Orange track by track, getting high and soaking it in — though weed was in no way essential to experience the specialness of the record. Consider the Earl Sweatshirt-assisted track “Super Rich Kids,” a sardonic lampoon of class in America. “Too many bottles of this wine we can’t pronounce,” he muses. “Too many bowls of that green, no Lucky Charms.” In a mainstream musical lyrical landscape where poppin’ bottles and hanging out with models was in vogue, Ocean made the lyrical landscape relatable. We weren’t aspiring to a fantasy life. Ocean was here to present candor.

On “Pyramids,” which combines elements of jazz, R&B, rap, and pop, stacked melodies crackle with vibrancy over its 10-minute runtime. Somehow, you can audibly hear the neon lights and smell the liquor surrounding the strip club with Ocean’s deft use of synthesizers, bass guitar, and descriptive lyrics.

“It was so ambitious,” explains Seymour. “Frank created this great body of work, and because of the attention he got after coming out, more people were willing to give it a chance. Also, people were listening so closely to find clues about the gay stuff. It turns out the album lived up to that intense engagement.”

Intense is right. The raw, romantic depth on full display on “Thinkin Bout You,” a standout ballad of the last 30 years, peaked at No. 32 on the Billboard Hot 100 (which, to this day, is the Ocean’s highest charting track as a lead artist). Following its release, Rolling Stone named Channel Orange one of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. His injection into the national conversation catapulted him from a bubbling name to a bona fide mainstream Grammy-winning artist. In the wake of the one-two punch of his major announcement and the success of Channel Orange, Time called him one of the world’s most influential people. And of course, the album paved the way for his 2016 follow-up Blonde, another universal critical triumph whose resonance is still heard in pop today.

At this moment in culture, it’s hard not to trace a direct line from Ocean and Channel Orange to artists like Lil Nas X and his own blockbuster album, Montero. They are very different artists: Lil Nas X leans into the definition of a pop star-like figure, while Ocean shuns the very notion, and both process their queerness in distinctive ways. Still, it could be said that Frank Ocean walked so Lil Nas X could run — or slide down a stripper pole to give the devil a lapdance in a music video. “When it comes to being gay, [Ocean] absolutely opened doors,” says McIntyre. “Could there be a Lil Nas X without Frank Ocean?”

On the other hand, Seymour isn’t too sure. “In the history of Black performers coming out, it's historic. But Lil Nas X coming out seems like the bigger moment. When people kept thinking Frank was going to start a movement, I never thought that. He’s idiosyncratic. He’s not the type to be at the front of a gay pride parade.”

Indeed, they were both swept up in the eras in which they found themselves. Ocean tip-toes into queer subjects by, for example, mentioning the word “gay” only once on Channel Orange, even as its title refers to the color he associates with that summer he first fell in love with a man. A decade later, Lil Nas X dives unflichingly into the subject matter by simulating gay sex in his videos.

Perhaps we’ll find Lil Nas X quaint in 10 years. In 2022, there could be another young queer artist who even shocks the TikTok generation by pushing the envelope. But as cultural norms have evolved, and the acceptance of LGBTQ+ identity has broadened, Ocean’s duel risks in 2012, to speak his personal truth and to release a groundbreaking album, become only more impressive for its respective qualities of humble artistry, creative poise, and personal bravery.

Latest News