It’s early September, and scattered around a dimly lit stage on network television are vintage arcade games: Street Fighter, Donkey Kong, Pac-Man. Before these old mall relics stands a band made up of two guitarists (one of whom is John Mayer), a bass player, and a drummer. The foursome forms a U shape around a young man in his mid twenties, his back slightly hunched, sitting on a stool, sporting his signature red-and-white-striped bandana. He’s singing a heartbreaking song about nostalgia, love lost, and the difficulties of moving on. While he croons, his weight slightly shifts. He lifts his head gracefully. He closes his eyes tightly. He pours his deepest secrets out to millions of viewers, but he’s very much in his own world.
That man is Frank Ocean. That stage is Saturday Night Live. The song is “Thinkin’ ‘Bout You,” and this moment could arguably be the apex of the music culture in 2012.
No one is surprised Ocean’s Channel Orange sits atop our annual Pazz & Jop poll. The artist dominated most music discussions this past year. He is the great equalizer. Because whether you consider yourself a fan of rap, indie rock, pop, metal, or polka, you were thinkin’ about Ocean. More than a third of P&J voters placed Orange somewhere on their ballot. His songs “Thinkin'” and “Pyramids” both cracked the singles Top Ten.
Channel Orange is a revelation. And its genesis can be traced all the way back to Hurricane Katrina, the storm that destroyed Ocean’s recording studio in New Orleans. It forced his decision to move west to Los Angeles with only $1,000 in his bank account. There, his talent led to signing with Def Jam under his birth name, Christopher Breaux. Once there, he started writing songs for Justin Bieber, John Legend, and Beyoncé. You know, no big deal for a guy barely out of his teens.
With success came money. And, “at 20 or 21,” he told GQ this past fall, “I had, I think, a couple hundred thousand dollars [from producing and songwriting], a nice car, a Beverly Hills apartment—and I was miserable.” Ocean met a rapper named Tyler, the Creator, joined his crew, Odd Future, and found some confidence. He released a free album called nostalgia, ULTRA in 2011 under the name Frank Ocean. The mixtape was critically acclaimed, and—wait a second—Def Jam had to sign him all over again. He outsmarted the business and became an inspiring story of artistic independence in the process. That same year, he went on to perform some of the only guest spots on Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch the Throne. Were the gods of rap knighting their prince? Even though you can’t and shouldn’t label Ocean a rapper, looking back, it sure as hell seems so.
Fast forward to July 2012. As the world waited on edge for Ocean’s debut major-label release, the songwriter surprised everyone and posted a note online: a story about his first love being with a man. In one swooping moment, Ocean had “come out,” for lack of a better term, and challenged the way the hip-hop/r&b community talks about its complicated relationship with sexuality. The letter was beautiful, endearing, brave, and inspiring. “By the time I realized I was in love, it was malignant,” he wrote. “It was hopeless. There was no escaping, no negotiating with the feeling. No choice. It was my first love. It would change my life.”
A few days later, Channel Orange would see release to much acclaim. The record, like the letter, is brilliant and subtle: a hodgepodge of emotions, made of short and long tracks stuck together like duct tape. Its sweeping, dynamic range of musicianship provides the ideal platform for Ocean’s voice, earnestly searching for answers and cures to help mend a broken heart.
Ultimately, of course, Ocean’s letter isn’t why it won Pazz & Jop. But it and Channel Orange come from the same mind, the same worldview. Ocean’s music argues that love—like heartbreak—knows no boundaries. What matters is the experience, not the labels we use to describe them. On “Bad Religion,” he sings, “It’s a bad religion to be in love with someone who could never love you.”
He’s right. Let’s leave it at that.