Last summer I was dating a beautiful Danish man who was far too attractive for his own good, studied art, and consequently liked to wax poetic (and sometimes pretentious) over things like German Expressionism and gender studies. One night, as on many nights, we drank too much and lay on his bedroom floor with our elbows touching. On this particular night, he’d just bought a new rug, and he pulled me down onto it a clumsy, drunken way while we giggled hysterically.
He didn’t have air conditioning, only a tiny fan, and as we sweat in the one hundred and something degree heat, we lay side-by-side looking up at the ceiling as though it were made of stars and the rug were made of grass, talking and laughing, the whole thing sound-tracked by “Songs For Women,” playing on repeat for what felt like forever but was probably only about an hour.
Over and over again it played, while we talked nonsense, bumped limbs awkwardly, and convulsed with laughter. That song, nay, the whole mixtape, Nostaliga, Ultra, defined a summer for me, a certain period of my life, in a way that albums rarely do. It told such an honest story that it resonated with me and everyone I knew, because it talked to us of our inebriated hedonism, our reckless sex but also of our most existential, 20-something insecurities, our desire to believe in something (something, something), and the boundless, but sometimes terrifyingly aimless ambition we’d been blessed with.
I know I’m about to get ripped to shreds for saying what I’m about to say, but Channel Orange hasn’t affected me in quite the same way. Don’t get me wrong; it’s a great album and I’ve really enjoyed listening to it. But when the album ends and I walk away, I don’t take it with me the way I took Nostalgia, Ultra everywhere with me this time last year, and indeed, the way I still carry it with me now.
Nostalgia told a story that wasn’t unfamiliar in it’s subject matter. That is to say, I’ve told similar stories, and had similar stories told to me. But the way Frank Ocean shared his story — from the heady “Novacane” to the brokenness of “American Wedding” and the romanticism of “Dust” — Nostalgia, Ultra was multi-dimensional, and layered with the anxieties of modern youth and privilege, from the trivial to the profoundly universal in a way that I’d never heard before.
Really, what was so special about listening to Nostalgia, Ultra, was that we actually heard Frank Ocean. Perhaps because it wasn’t a proper “album” (although in my humble opinion it’s a more complete album than most that purport to be), there was a rawness and honesty to it that I find entirely missing from Channel Orange, which, by comparison, feels contrived. Frank Ocean isn’t entirely in Channel Orange the way he is in Nostalgia, Ultra. It’s almost as if Orange is dervied from a formula based on the organic matter that was Nostalgia — a genetic clone, the closest rendition one could create with the DNA of its predecessor, but defective in that it isn’t, and will never be, a natural occurrence.
That notion reminds me of what Frank said in his GQ Rookie Of The Year video from 2011, about learning from Jay-Z, “Less takes is sometimes more.” Maybe I’m idealising all this a little bit, but Nostalgia, Ultra felt like an infinitely talented young man pouring out of my speakers, and despite its pop-catchiness, felt new each and every time I heard it. And it made me feel like this man, this Frank Ocean, was letting me have a little piece of him.
Channel Orange feels retrained by comparison, calculated, and removed. The story is lacking, and aside from stand-out tracks like “Bad Religion” (which Frank performed to arresting, knee-trembling perfection on Fallon recently) and “Thinkin Bout You”, there’s not much added to the dynamic Frank Ocean story, with (admittedly amazing) verses from Earl Sweatshirt and Andre 3000 acting as distractions rather than amplifiers.
Indeed, it feels like more has been added by the controversies around the album; from Frank’s “coming out” (for lack of better words), to Target’s refusal to sell the album, and Amazon subsequently lowering album prices so as to preclude Channel Orange sales from chart rankings. This isn’t the Frank Ocean that I want; I want the Frank Ocean that reveals himself through his art, something that so few are apt to do in our image focused society. Nostalgia wasn’t about the hype, and maybe I’m being petulant, but I never want the Frank Ocean I fell in love with to become susceptible to, let alone part of, the hype; because he’s so much more worthy than that.
Nevertheless, I do enjoy Channel Orange (can anyone say “Pyramids”?). It’s not going to change my life the way Nostalgia, Ultra did, but then that’s an unbelievably high expectation to set, anyway. Let’s just hope that Frank Ocean can continue to bring the charismatic honesty of Nostalgia into the future.