Music

Which Frank Ocean Album Is Better: ‘Channel Orange’ vs. ‘Blonde’

Earlier this month, Frank Ocean‘s first proper album Channel Orange turned 10, which naturally prompted writers to sing the praises of the highly acclaimed 2010s landmark. Except the critical love was curiously qualified in the same, specific way. For instance, Rolling Stone noted that Ocean’s second LP, 2016’s Blonde, has “arguably outshined Channel Orange in scope and impact.” Similarly, Stereogum also suggested that Blonde has “arguably eclipsed [Channel Orange] in terms of influence and prestige.”

For those keeping score, Channel Orange “arguably” is now down to Blonde in scope, impact, influence, and prestige. That’s four — count ’em four! — indicators of “greatness,” all leaning in the opposite direction away from Channel Orange. Actually, as far as critical consensus goes, “arguably” almost seems unnecessary at this point. Initially released to enthusiastic but somewhat reticent reviews — many critics, including yours truly, found it to be somewhere between a masterpiece and an incomplete mess — Blonde has indeed over time overshadowed (or “outshined” or “eclipsed”) its predecessor.

Consider that Pitchfork rated Blonde a 9.0 upon release – a stellar but slightly worse score than Channel Orange‘s 9.5 — only to rank it as the best album of the 2010s three years later. (Channel Orange came in at No. 10, a stellar but of course slightly worse placement.) Over at Rolling Stone, Blonde came out over Channel Orange on its Best Albums Of The Decade list, popping up at No. 12 vs. Channel Orange‘s (far too low) No. 37 ranking. But on the magazine’s 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time list, compiled 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 perhaps Blonde is now considered that decade’s fourth best record. (Channel Orange meanwhile lagged behind at No. 148, ahead of John Prine’s self-titled debut and just below Jeff Buckley’s Grace.)

Two things appear to be true in terms of how Channel Orange is now perceived — first, it’s indisputably a classic album of its era and, second, it seems to be regarded as a bit worse than Blonde. But is this really about these Frank Ocean albums, or does it actually say more about the people who write about music for a living? I have a theory that there are actually two 2010s — early 2010s and late 2010s — and these adjacent micro-generations are defined musically in part by Channel Orange and Blonde.

I have a clear memory of when Channel Orange was released in the summer of 2012. Like almost anyone who cared about popular music at the time, I was primed for this record. I had enjoyed and reviewed 2011’s Nostalgia, Ultra, a mixtape (not technically an album) that showed Ocean to be a singer-songwriter with tremendous potential he was just coming to realize. Now all signs were pointing toward a major breakthrough.

Ocean appeared the night before the release on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, and performed a startling rendition of one of the album’s most emotional tracks, “Bad Religion.” The song touched on the themes of unrequited love and personal identity that Ocean discussed in a widely read Tumblr post from one week prior, in which he revealed in heartfelt and poetic language that he had fallen in love with a man in 2009. This letter would inform how Channel Orange was subsequently heard and written about. First and foremost, it made Frank Ocean an artist that people wanted to see succeed.

Also on Fallon, it was announced that Channel Orange was actually out right now, a week earlier than expected. As this was the early 2010s, during the lull before streaming took hold, the rush release was intended to briefly circumvent piracy. And it worked: Many of us really did purchase the album download immediately after Fallon. We wanted to hear Orange as soon as possible, and it instantly became one of the first “event” albums of the social media era. In 2012, it was still novel for “everyone” to experience an album for the first time simultaneously online, and the impromptu late-night listening party undoubtedly added to Channel Orange‘s sense of importance.

Looked at more broadly, Channel Orange came out in the waning days of Barack Obama’s first term, and it pointed toward a future in which America’s first Black commander-in-chief became the first Democrat to win two presidential elections with a majority of the vote since FDR. In Ocean, many people saw a different kind of transformational figure, a forward-thinking paradigm-shifter whose sudden rise seemed to indicate real social progress for queer Americans. (Even Obama, who entered the White House officially opposed to gay marriage, had only changed his public position two months before Channel Orange was released.) This made Channel Orange in its time more than just an excellent album; it was also a feel-good story, an optimistic bellwether portending positive change on the horizon, a quintessential Obama-era cultural signifier.

Is it possible that these short-term attributes have somehow dated Channel Orange in retrospect? There are aspects of Channel Orange that feel much older than just a decade, especially when you compare it to Blonde. The circumstances of each album’s release have a striking yin-yang quality — while Channel Orange came out at a time when it appeared as though recent progressive gains would be impossible to reverse, Blonde arrived (along with the even more radical Endless) at the end of the Obama era, as the dread-inducing murk of Trump’s America loomed. This has shaped how both albums sound in 2022.

When Pitchfork placed Blonde at the top of its best of the 2010s list, the music site effectively retconned it as a record that expressed how it felt to be alive in the cursed late 2010s better than any other work of art. “The year 2016 crystallized the political disaster right under the surface.” writer Doreen St. Felix noted. “People theorized that we needed anthems to get us through the dark night. Big choruses, hooks as wide as highway signs, regular percussion that could gird us from chaos. But our mood was languorous; jingoism was the problem in the first place. We wanted the blurred, the softened, the existential.”

Channel Orange had once also seemed “blurred,” “softened” and “existential.” Upon its release, the album felt insular, strange, and willfully anti-commercial. That was part of Orange‘s progressive appeal. But in the wake of Blonde‘s much more extreme fragmentation — in which drums and most other instrumentation were eschewed to intensify the spotlight on Ocean’s pained, introspective isolation — Orange suddenly seemed relatively buoyant and accessible, if also (perhaps) less “real.” Whereas the relatively hopeful period that Channel Orange evokes seems further away each day, the alienated interior soundscapes of Blonde feel as new as the morning sunrise, not just in terms of influence — which has been immense on pop music, which is more vibey than ever — but emotional relevance. If Channel Orange hits like a happy but distant memory, Blonde feels as present as your latest breath.

I’ve spent a lot of time listening to Channel Orange and Blonde lately, and it should be noted, before anything else, that pitting them against each other is foolish. They are, again, highly complementary albums that offer distinctly different (but equally masterful) experiences. While my feelings about Blonde were initially mixed, I now hear it as an album that feels wholly unique to Ocean’s sensibility. With Channel Orange, critics were quick to put Ocean in a continuum of icons that included shapeshifters like Sly Stone, Stevie Wonder, and Prince, all of whom managed to make wildly successful pop on their own intensely eccentric terms. But with Blonde, Ocean made the case for starting his own continuum, in which future musicians would follow a path charted by him and him alone in the 2010s and beyond.

This is why Blonde, I’m sure, now gets the edge over Channel Orange in the minds of music writers. It feels more important. But while I acknowledge the musical ingenuity and power of that record, my recent spins tell me my heart still resides with Channel Orange. I just think the songs are better, while also registering more fully as songs as opposed to vibe-y setpieces. (You can’t convince me Frank has yet topped “Pyramids,” unless you want to make a case for “Thinkin’ Bout You” or “Forrest Gump.”) As an album, it is more dynamic and well rounded — it has the stripped-down gut-punches (“Bad Religion,” “Pink Matter”) that point toward Blonde, but it also has the catchy bangers (“Super Rich Kids,” “Lost”) that Frank mostly left behind on his second album.

Above all, Blonde would not exist without Channel Orange. First, Frank Ocean assembled his original masterpiece. Then he disassembled it in order to create a pared-down second masterpiece. Together, they represent a singular journey through an uncertain and tumultuous era.

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