When I think of disappearing, I think of 2012. The year Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange came out. Everyone was blasting it through headphones everywhere. When I think of that year and of Frank, I think of how one thing can define so much of someone’s life. I think of the moments after an event happens and the world is waiting on what is coming next. I think of what happens if that “next” is an extended moment of silence.
Silence is something Frank Ocean fans know all too well. Channel Orange was Frank’s first studio album, coming after his mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra – a fourteen track collection songs where Frank sings over the melodies of several hit artists. The widespread love of Nostalgia, Ultra caused a thirst among fans for any details of Frank’s next project. These details came first in the release of the single “Thinkin Bout You” on June 23rd of 2012 followed by Sweet Life on July 6th of the same year. These singles heralded the imminent drop of Channel Orange on July 10th. The album largely encircles the ideas of unrequited love, queer love, and what it means to share a version of that love with the world. On the whole, the songs on the album swam with a melodic smoothness that melted over the summer air of 2012.
Frank sings “It will never get old / not in my soul / not in my spirit / keep it alive”. In my dreams I’d like to stay this way, stay this open, stay this whole, stay this alive. There is something so magical in staying, something so tragic. Stay if it is all you can do. That is all I want from this moment. Keep it alive, keep it alive and breathing, keep it alive until the sky goes black and there are no more dreams to dream.
In elementary school, we had some woods out behind our playground. I was obsessed with them. At recess in fourth grade, I would make attempts to go as far in as I could without getting caught by whoever was there to monitor us during our play. I would think about all the ways I could survive alone in the forest, hide from anyone who got to close. Me and my friends chatted about it endlessly. Every day, we held small competitions amongst ourselves, just to see who would make it in furthest that day. And what ten-year-old isn’t fixated on nature and all the things that they can possibly get away from by simply going outside. I was by no means a sad child (at least as much as I can remember), but there was just something about being able to just leave everything behind that was so enticing. The woods behind our school felt so mystic. I dreamt that bears and deer that would meet me as I stepped out into the unknown. And of course, the woods led straight to a busy street. But you couldn’t tell that to a group of ten-year-old’s ripe with belief in all sorts of magic. We believed ourselves invincible, believed we could survive on our own. And what better way to dance away from all the worries of homework and expectations than an escape to something more unknown, undiscovered.
I was never the best student, I admit. Part of me just didn’t care enough. I was too distracted by smaller things, trading cards, video games mostly. At my school, there was this policy that students who missed assignments or generally did poor work altogether, had to miss out on recess that day or week or month, depending on how long it took to get your shit together. I found myself always one of those students. Always inside. Always working on last night’s math. Always writing last night’s essay. Always looking outside during recess to the back woods, wishing I was out there with my friends instead. Our school buildings were old too. The upper floor classrooms were repurposed from unused radio station studios, and a large portion of the classes were held in trailers. The school is closed now, and even though I had a feeling it would last much longer after I graduated, I still find myself thinking back on it fondly and missing the moments I spent there.
In summer of 2012, I played Channel Orange front to back for months. I played it well passed the moment when I could pull each lyric from my throat. I played it in the car on the way to hoop with friends. Part of the reason was the escape of it all. I wasn’t attached to my home life. All I wanted was a getaway. I never really cared what form those getaways took. I remember moments I told my mom and dad that friends had invited me over when they didn’t. In truth I just wanted an excuse to get into my car and go wherever it took me. That summer, it felt like Frank was in that Impala with me, both of us looking for places to escape all of the noise.
Frank sings “Keeping it surreal / whatever you like / whatever feels good”, and am I not still chasing that? Am I not barefoot on the grass calling out for some sort of home. Have I not always been all sorts of places all at once. My T.V. is a bit too HD, honestly. I’ve felt too many things today. All I am asking for is a reprieve. All I am asking for is to breathe and have my lungs work for me this time.
After Channel Orange and a couple tours, Frank was gone. I understand it now a little bit more than I did at the time. To release a thing into the world and have it be so successful, especially as a first album must be jarring. No one is prepared for good news when they haven’t experienced it to the extent in which it is about to arrive. In my senior year of high school, I wrote a shitty chapbook of poems, which I loved. I loved them so much that I self-published them. My friends and family bought copies and told me how much they loved them. At the time I was in awe that I could create a thing and end up eventually holding it in my hands. To see your own words on a page that someone else printed is wild. So, I can only imagine that the feeling is magnified when the thing released into the world is a massively successful album.
What I remember most about the years after Channel Orange is the talking. Everyone went into detective mode tracking Frank’s every movement, every appearance, every performance, salivating for what was yet to come. There were a couple tours after Channel Orange dropped, but nothing seemed to be enough. Frank had bypassed exciting new artist status and transcended into household name territory. It is always funny how one moment can change everything. I crashed my first car only three days after getting it, and I wonder how life would’ve been different if I had just a bit more time with it. But now, maybe, I am beside the point.
Frank sings “Don’t no one disrupt nirvana / don’t no one wanna blow the high” and he is so right. I’ve sat on hills in front of sunsets to maintain the high. Every car ride or drive I’ve taken was to maintain the high. Life is a thousand times more beautiful when you want to live it, want to bask in the sweet air when it is provided. Let me sit in my comfort for a moment. Let me sleep under setting suns until I am no longer here.
Frank posted a letter to Tumblr before Channel Orange was released as well, and now we are talking about things compounding. How one piece of news climbs the back of another and reaches its arms to the sky in a call for attention. Frank told the world he was bisexual in a time where a lot of black mainstream Hip-Hop and RnB acts were not and still used a bevy of homophobic slurs in their music. I imagine this among the many incentives for Frank to “get away”. Spending so much time in the public eye after being, essentially, a high-profile underground act, if those words even work together, must be emotionally draining. I guess I say this to say that at eighteen, as a senior in high school, I took too many puffs of an albuterol inhaler and went to sleep in hopes I wouldn’t wake. And isn’t that, too, a type of disappearance?
There is an identical sea of trees in the back of my grandparents’ house. At times I sit in front of those woods and see deer stare back, then retreat into the safety of the tree line, and I wonder if they’ve felt the same way. I will never know what Frank was looking for in the years he was gone. I know his deal with Def Jam soured and that he wanted to be an independent act. Maybe he spent the time working on what was coming next; maybe he didn’t. I often dream of packing my car with the essentials and leaving everything else behind; driving with no endpoint in sight and making things up as I go along. Maybe everyone does to an extent. Maybe everyone seeks a way to change their life drastically. My Dad used to tell me, when I dreamed of going to college miles away, that I wasn’t escaping anything, and I never really knew what he meant. Now, at 29 and back living in the city in which I was born, after going to grad school 3000 miles away, I think I do. I think Frank did as well. What is life but thousands or perhaps millions of reasons to want a brief escape. Maybe we all dream of a world where it is just us, no matter how unrealistic it may be. Maybe we are all just kids stepping into the woods for a moment, seeing how far we can get before life calls us back.
James O’Bannon was born and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio. He holds a BA in English from Northern Kentucky University and an MFA in poetry from Fresno State University and is a Tin House Workshop Alumnus. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Waxwing, Mid-American Review, Triquarterly, Spry Literary Journal, Switchback Journal, and Flies, Cockroaches, and Poets.