As “Nostalgia” continued to gain attention, Ocean’s team would call Weiss to demand more money for Ocean’s follow-up record, “Channel Orange.” “Frank was so bullish and so optimistic and so confident about the album that he was creating that he had his representatives call us up and say that he deserves a lot more money,” Weiss says. “I don’t believe that I had actually heard anything at that point. But we did something atypical, that most labels I don’t think would do. We stepped up. We wrote the check. Virtually album-unheard, sight-unseen, we believed so much in this guy that we actually wrote the check.” Ocean has claimed in the past that he demanded $1 million. When I asked about that, Weiss said only, “I plead the fifth.”
A couple of weeks before “Channel Orange” was released, Ocean wrote a post on his Tumblr: “Orange reminds me of the summer I first fell in love. Awww. . . . ” Less than a week later, in the post that revealed how important that first love had been for him, he wrote: “I wanted to create worlds that were rosier than mine. I tried to channel overwhelming emotions.” Channel. Orange.
To write the songs for “Channel Orange,” Ocean turned to James Ryan Ho, a producer who goes by the name Malay. He would become Ocean’s most creative partner in the making of the record. As Ocean remembers it, on their first day together, with Malay at the console and Ocean in the vocal booth, they came up with “Super Rich Kids,” one of the fan favorites from the record. Over the next two days, they wrote the 10-minute track “Pyramids.”
There was very little talking in the studio. This is a common refrain for people who work with Ocean. (Da’Jon, a young cousin from New Orleans who was living with Ocean when I visited, said that they sometimes go days without speaking to each other, and that he would occasionally ask Ocean if everything was O.K., just to be sure.) While Malay created the musical beds, Ocean would type on his laptop, humming melodies and trying out combinations. For mood they sometimes had an old movie playing in the background with no sound, and in later stages Ocean put up posters of Pink Floyd and Bruce Lee for inspiration. Ocean’s tastes are eclectic, drawing on everything from Wes Anderson movies to Radiohead and Celine Dion. “The next thing you know, Frank’s like, ‘Let me go in the booth,’ ” Malay told me, “and then he just lays it down. He’s kind of like an M.C.,” he went on, “like a rapper. Rappers come in, and they just write lyrics and drop it down, and he’s that same way, but obviously his lyrical concepts and melody concepts are ridiculous.”
After a couple of months of on-and-off work with Malay, Ocean had skeleton versions of every song that would appear on “Channel Orange,” including the nonsong interludes that create so much of the record’s ambient appeal. On a dry-erase board in his apartment, he wrote the names of the songs and the interludes with a red Sharpie and began playing around with their placement. “Even though they were all sketches,” Ocean says, “there was so much comfort, because I heard in my head how it was going to sound. Now all I’ve got to do is finish it.” Once he arrived at the final album order, with nine months of recording still ahead of him, the sequence never changed.
In June 2011, Ocean tapped Om’Mas Keith, another producer in Los Angeles, to help him turn his sketches into major-label-release-ready album cuts. They decided to focus first on vocals — leads, harmonies — and then they went back into the studio to perfect the music. “Crack Rock” and “Monks” got live drum sounds. “Sweet Life” went from being a digital track created by Pharrell Williams to a live, full-throated jam. They made use of every technique they could think of: for the ominous strings on “Bad Religion,” they had only a few string players to work with. So the engineer, Jeff Ellis, arranged seating for a large string section in Studio 1 of EastWest Studios, the same room where Frank Sinatra recorded “My Way,” and then used a pair of old stereo ribbon microphones to capture the sound. The players sat in different seats each time they played along with the track, so that when they mixed all of the takes together at the end, it would sound as if they had filled the room with musicians.
“This is the Michael Jackson way of making records,” Om’Mas told me. He called Ocean “the shepherd” of the whole process. “I just credit Frank with being an extreme visionary, even in how he put the process together. It’s a blueprint that people are going to try to follow. But if you don’t have a vision, you can’t follow it, because you won’t get anywhere.”