In five years, Frank Ocean has gone from releasing his proper debut album to proving the flimsy absurdity of the words “proper debut album.”
Just last year, his profound insight into music consumption finessed him from an unhappy record deal into prosperous free agency. But four years before Blonde intensified his cultural and critical dominance (as well as his bank account), Frank was just an up-and-comer. Channel Orange was released five years ago Monday (July 10) and before its arrival, a mixtape and handful of features to Ocean’s name. It’s crazy to think there was once a time he was saddled with descriptors like “Odd Future crooner Frank Ocean.” In the years since, he’s welcomed us into one of music’s most sensitive psyches and delivered on the promise of an artist whose early-career feature bested both Beyoncé’s and…um…Otis Redding’s on Kanye West and JAY-Z‘s collaborative mega-flex, Watch the Throne.
In the end, we decided “No Church in the Wild” isn’t enough Frank’s song to crack this early career canon, though certainly not out of failing to go hard enough. Parsing through less than a decade of material to come up with the top 10 Frank Ocean songs was no easy task.
10. Frank Ocean – “Nature Feels” (from Nostalgia, Ultra, 2011)
Following the note on “No Church,” there’s no doubt Frank owes a heavy debt here, too, building this mixtape track largely from “Electric Feel”s’ slithering disco bass. But MGMT have scarcely sounded this good since 2007’s Oracular Spectacular, and they absolutely never sounded this provocative. Lyrically, Ocean cuts to the core, managing to sexualize photosynthesis (“I’ve been meaning to f— you in the garden / Been breathing so hard we both could use the oxygen”) and link it to mankind’s most primal (also garden-related) instincts (“Feeling like Adam when he first found out this existed.”)
9. Frank Ocean – “Ivy” (from Blonde, 2016)
Frank f—s with some indie rock. From Nostalgia, Ultra’s “What’s a Radiohead?” mini-sketch to naming his label Boys Don’t Cry, he’s got an appreciation for heady guitar work, which he employs on Blonde’s second track. The chiming, palm-muted guitar line — written by former Vampire Weekend member Rostam Batmanglij — nestles a glistening, percussion-free environment for Ocean to come clean over lost love, this time as the heartbreaker.
8. Frank Ocean – “Bad Religion” (from Channel Orange, 2013)
This Channel Orange side D gem is closely intertwined with Ocean’s coming out as bisexual on the eve of the album’s release, and a thematic link to another sparse confessional on the double album’s opening side (more on that later). A lovelorn Ocean confides in his taxi driver and, upon receiving only religious platitudes, realizes begging kinda sucks, whether it’s to God or a would-be partner: “If it brings me to my knees, it’s a bad religion.” After careening between falsetto and plain-sung pleas for most of the song, the Prince-like scream he squeezes into the denouement is one of Channel Orange‘s signature moments.
7. Frank Ocean – “Nikes” (from Blonde, 2016)
Ocean released Blonde a day after the enigmatic visual album Endless, which fulfilled his Def Jam contract and allowed him to truly operate as he wished. Likewise, his lead single as a free agent was about as far from a capitalistic commercial push as he could get — a deeply layered, sentimental dirge made beautiful through its subject matter. Frank knows how to appreciate simple pleasures, but on “Nikes,” he brushes aside the vices of stardom for one of his most poignant moments: “Pour up for ASAP [Yams]/RIP Pimp C/RIP Trayvon, that n—- look just like me.”
6. Frank Ocean – “Chanel” (single, 2017)
Much was made of Ocean’s casual coming out, a couple years after many were introduced to him through a song that found him getting horny over “a stripper booty and a rack like wowwwwwww.” Of course, these two sides aren’t mutually exclusive, something that’s wound together brilliantly on this entrancing ode to bisexuality. It’s full of slick lines that deserve to be immortalized in their own custom Tumblr graphics, but alas, “I see both sides like Chanel” — Frank’s shrewd link between his romantic desires and the brand’s dual-gazing logo — is the prize of the collection.
5. Frank Ocean – “Pink + White” (from Blonde, 2016)
“Pink + White” was co-written and co-produced by Pharrell Williams and features one Beyoncé Knowles-Carter on backing vocals, but those are hardly the most notable things about this utterly beautiful Frank Ocean song. Heck, Blonde’s liner notes are loaded with flashy names (something that ruins some albums) but that’s not what made it one of last year’s most blissful slabs of music. This song combines heavenly melodies, keystrokes and bass plucks — a near-aural equivalent to the pink and white sky Ocean sings about — in conveying the bliss of youth amongst the pain of losing a childhood friend. In the end, he realizes what he can achieve by keeping the good memories alive: “This is life, life is immortality.”
4. Frank Ocean – “Pyramids” (from Channel Orange, 2013)
This 10-minute wonder towers over the middle of Channel Orange and for good reason: it’s like a whole album within an album, thematically and musically. It opens as a banger, then shifts from clubby grandeur to druggy and downtempo, soundtracking Ocean’s cross-millennia Black narrative. His Cleopatra character is all-powerful in ancient Egypt, then, once the song shifts to present, becomes a stripper just as crestfallen as her client.
On a lighter side, we’ll always have Ocean’s “Pyramids” SNL performance; after wrapping up his singing duties, he shuffles cross-stage to play some video games while his pal (and album collaborator) John Mayer continues to shred.
3. Frank Ocean – “Slide” (from Calvin Harris’ Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1, 2017)
Sure, Ocean isn’t the lead artist, but does anyone really think of “Slide” as a Calvin Harris song? The DJ-producer’s sun-kissed disco grooves give our hero the closest thing he’s had to a summer jam, and at that, his biggest Top 40 hit to date (it peaked at No. 9 on Billboard’s Pop Songs chart). There’s also uncanny chemistry between collaborators. Ocean muses emptying his bank account to buy a Picasso in the intro; he doesn’t mention the painter, but Offset drops the name in his guest verse.
2. Frank Ocean – “Thinkin Bout You” (from Channel Orange, 2013)
Anyone still mulling over Ocean’s awkward Grammys performance needs to go back and watch his real defining TV moment, the uncanny “Thinkin Bout You” rendition, a video clinic on how to pivot your voice from painspoken to falsetto on a dime. In this popular demo-turned single, moments like this are a true emotional gut-punch — what you get when a song about heartbreak uses empty sonic space so profoundly. Minimal and tender, Ocean used it to open up to the world about a particular unrequited love, which upon releasing Channel Orange, he revealed was with with a man.
1. Frank Ocean – “Novacane” (from Nostalgia, Ultra, 2011)
Ocean’s evolved as a lyricist, but it’s no diss to name a debut mixtape track his best-to-date because, well, he’s always been fire. He attended Coachella 2010 not as an artist, but as a fan — sort of just like us! — and captured the bougie malaise of millennial festival-goers with this woozy, wobbly, instantly-quotable smash. The devolution from chatting up a gorgeous woman about JAY-Z and Z-Trip to a cocaine-fueled fervor with dirty dishes in the sink is absolutely off-putting, but Ocean’s never been here to humor us.
A few years later, the Weeknd would sing about not being able to feel his face in a far more popular song, but if there’s a track to make us bolt the VIP section and go enjoy a natural high, it’s Ocean’s.