“If it brings me to my knees, it’s a bad religion”, sings Frank Ocean in the most moving track on the masterful ‘Channel Orange’ – a sentiment he stretches and elaborates on further at the very end of the song: “It’s a bad religion to be in love with someone who could never love you”, he explains, “I can never make him love me.” This is the crux of Ocean’s heartbreak. It’s different to flat-out rejection, as circumstances dictate that he was never even a contender for the object of his affection. There are barriers which cannot be ignored or knocked down, which adds to the heartache. He doesn’t even get a chance to try.
‘Bad Religion’ – and the entire excellent album which houses it – are forever linked to the confessional letter Ocean posted on his Tumblr days before the release of this record. The letter, all caps, all heart, and typed on an archaic DOS-based version of Word, details the first time Ocean fell in love – with a man. It was effectively his own public outing, with Ocean writing in part: “4 summers ago, I met somebody. 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. Most of the day I’d see him, and his smile. I’d hear his conversation and his silence…until it was time to sleep. Sleep I would often share with him. By the time I realized I was in love, it was malignant. It was hopeless. There was no escaping, no negotiating with the feeling. No choice. It was my first love, it changed my life.”
Ocean had been fucking with personal pronouns for a while in his songwriting, so the more observant of fans were already semi-aware – it’s hard to ignore his line in Odd Future song ‘Oldie’ where he raps “I’m high and I’m bi – oh wait… I mean, I’m straight” – but still, this was a deliberate and bold statement, made as he was about to unleash his most high-profile work to date. “I feel like a free man”, he wrote, ending the letter: “If I listen closely.. I can hear the sky falling too.”
Ignore the ridiculous art on this video – this is the song.
‘Bad Religion’ finds Ocean spilling about this one-sided relationship to a cab driver, using him as his own personal therapist as he implores the driver to keep the metre running while Ocean attempts to “outrun the demons.” It’s a fruitless race, but the opportunity to be truthful without any fallout is enough to justify the ever-climbing cab-fare. The opening organ bars sounds like both a hymn and rock radio – the very station you’d imagine the radio in a taxi to be set to. It’s also a shock that nobody has mashed this with the similar-sounding ‘Fix You’ but it’s very possible they have, and I didn’t Google it.
‘Channel Ocean’ should be a difficult listen, with its hour-plus running time, disinterest in sticking within a single genre for more than a few minutes at a time (fearlessly leaping from Motown-sounds to EDM to gospel to hip hop to Prince-pyramid-sex-funk), opening Playstation 1 Street Fighter sample, and its release into what was/is a largely-homophobic hip hop community. But it’s not difficult. It’s challenging, sure, but in the way most classic records are. (‘Pet Sounds’ and ‘What’s Going On’ aren’t walks in the sonic park either.) Your mum will love it. Your dad will be impressed by it. Your nan – well, she’s dead. It also sets an impossible bar: Ocean has gone four years since its release without a peep, even after promising the release of a follow-up album in July 2015, then letting the month past with neither comment nor CD. It’s safe to assume Frankie is feeling the pressure.
Then again, maybe not. Maybe he is operating on a completely different timeline to the rest of the music industry. Maybe – despite the very public support of his coming out – things are quite different behind closed doors. Or maybe he is just enjoying his late 20s without the pressure of being a public figure, and with the benefit of having earned enough money and acclaim to never need to work again. He has disappeared from social media and therefore the public eye (although he dipped back in last week to offer this heartfelt Prince eulogy) and that’s fine. Maybe, he just doesn’t feel the need to drop to his knees for what he now deems to be a bad religion. Whatever the reason for his public absence, I hope he is enjoying it.
After all, no matter how things seem at the time, the sky never truly falls.