In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week, in honor of our Best Films Of The Decade So Far list, we’re talking about songs from some of the best records of the decade so far.
It’s been almost three years since the release of Frank Ocean’s monumental Channel Orange, but it feels brand new with each listen. It’s an intoxicating album filled with nostalgia and emotion that, even after dozens of spins, feels unpredictable. Ocean (with the help of a few well-placed intervals of video game sounds and static) evokes channel-surfing of the mind, following his otherwise scattered thoughts through one seamless wave of consciousness. Yet despite the album’s casual flow, there’s nothing spontaneous about it. Frank Ocean is a perfectionist and very much in control. In fact, much of Channel Orange is his attempt to reason with things beyond his power and the shaky balance between his strengths and vulnerabilities is never more apparent than on “Bad Religion.”
The track is remarkably straightforward, making an obvious (but no less potent) connection between a one-sided love affair and an empty conviction: What is the cost of dedicating so much of yourself to something when it offers nothing in return? Drawn out church organ chords set the tone and the momentum quickly builds, but the entire song is over in just under three minutes, as if the pain would be too much to bare any longer. Ocean knows it’s fruitless, making the way he’s feeling all the more suffocating, “To me it’s nothing but a one-man cult / And cyanide in my styrofoam cup.” He continues on, repeating “love me” and letting out a Stevie Wonder-esque wail even though this taxicab confessional is itself unrequited; there are no words of wisdom or reassurances offered in return. But “Bad Religion” isn’t a cry for help, it’s an effort to make peace. By channeling his anguish through his art and putting it out into the world, Frank Ocean is attempting to gain control over his irrepressible feelings.
When “Bad Religion” played for a number of journalists at an early Channel Orange listening party, many took note of the line “I can never make him love me” and began to speculate. Shortly thereafter, Ocean, not willing to lose control of the conversation, shared the poetic story of his first love on his Tumblr, which closed with the cathartic line “I feel like a free man.” Opening up about his sexuality was undoubtedly a huge moment for the young singer (and hip hop/R&B in general), but the most critical thing that the letter and “Bad Religion” reveal is that Frank Ocean is an artist willing to be completely honest with himself. If Channel Orange is Ocean coming to terms with who he is, then whatever comes next from this “free man” will be well worth the wait.