channel ORANGE, Cooper Black
Track 19 // Vol. 05: Type Justified
Imagine the opening to Frank Ocean’s “Thinkin Bout You.” If you know the song, you’re probably hearing it in your head, maybe you’re even picturing the person you always think about when listening to it. It’s in C Major and the first four bars are sustained whole notes: E, C, D, and C. If you hum it as is, it’s not a sad tune. However, there’s something about the way Frank treats those four notes that lures you into a pensive state. You wade in slowly until you’re suddenly drowning in it.
There are three versions of “Thinkin Bout You,” each one with a slightly different 4-bar intro. The album version features naked strings, imbuing it with a classical melancholy; the unofficial video version sounds like synths underwater, giving it a dreamy quality; and the single version (above) is a combination of both effects. I love them all—but the unofficial video has a special place in my heart because it’s the original record I heard over a decade ago. In it you find varied harmonies, ad libs, and effects from the other more polished tracks. It’s also the closest one to the live, stripped-down performance I saw during his Coachella set in 2012—a little trippy, a little raw, like the audience, like the desert. This memory feels like a lifetime ago, swaying in the crowd alone, but in a chorus with everyone, realizing that many other strangers found the same home in his music.
All summer I’ve been craving this feeling of being at a concert outside, under night’s breezy reprieve from the heat. I finally went to one at the end of August, less so for the band and more for the craving I felt for the indie music I listened to years ago in California. I just wanted to sway in a crowd, ears ringing, skin glowing under the stage lights. I went, and I relived all the concerts a decade before it.
Music is the most direct conduit to nostalgia. Almost out of a fairy tale, people once tried to ban music to keep the feeling at bay—except nostalgia wasn’t perceived as a feeling then, but rather a deadly illness in Europe. (I’d also like to acknowledge that there are other words for this feeling in different cultures and languages, each with its own nuance—if you want to read more about that, check out this journal article on Pancultural Nostalgia.) The word “nostalgia” emerged in 1680 after a young doctor named Johannes Hofer noticed an affliction developing in Swiss mercenary soldiers stationed abroad. He noted their symptoms of sadness, fitful sleep, sighing, and "stupidity of the mind—attending to nothing hardly other than the idea of the fatherland.” He diagnosed them with a disease described as a kind of extreme homesickness, coining it as ‘nostalgia.’ In rough Greek translation, nostos means homecoming and algia means ache. According to “The Nostalgia Bone” episode of NPR’s Throughline, military officials tried to prevent the spread of nostalgia by banning whistling certain tunes, like the music played by Swiss cow herders on their longhorns. Hosts Grafton Tanner and Laine Kaplan-Levenson explain:
“You couldn't sing certain popular songs from back home because they thought that a familiar melody might trigger this outbreak of yearning, and then it might rip through the ranks…This music was such a nostalgia trigger that playing, singing or merely whistling the tune could get you killed.”
Music transports and splits you in time, when you relive past experiences in your mind, remember those people associated in your heart, all while feeling its vibrations in your body, wholly electric in the present.
This summer I started to romanticize some of my lowest times in my early 20s, or perhaps, the ways I tried to cope through them. I’m not sure why exactly, apart from the fact that enough time has passed for the cream of those memories to separate from the dregs. Experiencing live music, whether it was at a local café or a large festival, grounded me in the present and offered a reprieve from loneliness. I craved live music then; I crave how I craved it then, now. Seasons also trigger nostalgia— it hits me most at the beginning of summer and at its end, a vestige of the emotional cycle of the school year. I’m feeling it grow stronger as summer wanes. I listen to albums and playlists from those times again without the same cringe, twinge, or bitter aftertaste. I’m grateful those flavors have faded, and yet I miss the gut punch of indulging in the memory while reeling from its consequences.
Andre Aciman, whose memoirs and fiction fixate on a kind of preemptive, anticipatory nostalgia, once wrote that, “home, as one learns soon enough, is a place where one imagines or remembers other homes.” This line is tattooed on my brain. But the idea of home is one facet to nostalgia—it’s also about longing for an era, for a moment. To that I’d offer, “Summer is a time when one imagines or remembers other summers.”
Frank Ocean for me is such a gut punch of nostalgia, not only for his echoey vocals and yearning lyrics, but also for the distinct time of my life when I first listened to his mixtape nostalgia, ULTRA. and his debut album channel ORANGE. I had just moved to San Francisco after living in Japan for two years; those albums were the soundtracks to my transition. With the first four notes of “Thinkin Bout You,” the nostalgia for that lost year of 2012 laps at my feet, missing my old home while making my new home, wondering if it would ever feel like home.
Track 19 is all about nostalgia—the feeling and the mixtape. Summertime sadness. channel ORANGE through Cooper Black.
Of all things in life, we long for home and love (of all kinds) the most, even while we have them. Perhaps the ideas of them loom over the existing place and the practice itself. In 2005 after Hurricane Katrina flooded and destroyed his studio, Frank Ocean left his home in New Orleans and drove to Los Angeles, for what he planned as a temporary stay. Six weeks turned into six years. In that time, his mind occupied two homes, the one at present and the one remembered as he worked diligently on his songwriting and music. He released his first mixtape for free on his tumblr in 2011 as a pointed message to his neglectful record label Island Def Jam. In an interview with Complex in 2011, he discussed the feeling and process of that mixtape:
"It’s nostalgic. It’s a longing for the past. That’s what this record felt like. I named it five minutes before we finished mastering. Right before we had to write the labels on the CDs and get out of there.”
nostalgia, ULTRA. opens with the sound of a cassette tape rewinding, stopping, and playing. The opening track, “Strawberry Swing,” samples Coldplay’s song by the same name, originally about remembering a perfect day. Frank’s interpretation places the story in childhood, the beginning sounds echo from far away, before it comes into focus by the first verse. In “American Wedding,” he samples The Eagles’ “Hotel California,” emphasizing liminality and the trade-offs of choosing paradise. The album sounds like falling into a daydream of youth, all its experiments turned awry and the thrust forward to the future.
A year later, Frank Ocean released channel ORANGE, a polished album recorded in its intended track order, rife with more themes of youth’s follies, longing, and unrequited love. A few days before it dropped, Frank posted a beautiful, vulnerable letter on his then-active tumblr, describing his first love, ultimately expressing gratitude for the life-altering experience, as told by songs like “Thinkin Bout You” and “Bad Religion.” While the hype around this album grew since the success of nostalgia, ULTRA., Frank managed to surpass it, transcending genres and expectations of personal storytelling, making it an instant classic. Ten years later, channel ORANGE evolves with us.
Both projects hatched out of a time steeped in aching for a love and home lost, further incubated by the unbridled emotions of late teens- early 20s. Host of Dissect Cole Cuchna describes the kinship between both albums, sonically, thematically, and visually in S3E2: Thinking About You by Frank Ocean.
“Conceptually, channel ORANGE is nostalgia, ULTRA’s kindred spirit. Where ULTRA’s framework was the cassette tape being skipped through and played, channel ORANGE centers around the television with Frank flipping channels throughout the album. The songs themselves play like cinematic stories of his life and the lives of others. We also find similarities between nostalgia, ULTRA. and channel ORANGE’s cover art. Each project contains word titles placed approximately in the same position on the front cover both written in the same two fonts.”
If you look at the album covers side by side, you’ll notice that the designs feature the super-bold serif typeface Cooper Black for the first word in lowercase letters, and Orator, a lightweight sans serif for the second word, in uppercase letters. It’s a subtle way of reinforcing the bond of these two projects visually, not just for the same text treatments, but for the specific choice of Cooper Black—a typeface that exudes a retro-feel and sentimentality, and the modern contrast of Orator.
You’ve definitely seen Cooper Black even if you’re not familiar with its name. It’s on Tootsie Rolls, Top Ramen, easyJet planes, and Napoleon Dynamite’s “Vote for Pedro” t-shirt. Cooper Black is a typeface so ubiquitous that it’s indiscernible until you realize it’s everywhere. Simon Garfield, author of Just My Type, describes it as conveying “a warm fuzziness, a homeliness, a soft hipness…Cooper Black is the sort of font that the oils in a lava lamp would form if smashed to the floor.” While most associated with advertising and commercial branding of the 1960s and 70s, Cooper Black was designed in 1922 by Oswald Bruce Cooper for Barnhart Brothers & Spindler type foundry. It worked well in advertising because of its warmth, weight, and boldness. It became more legible with the letters closer together, saving space on paper, and it looked best experienced from afar—great for signage. Garfield adds that it’s a kind of type “better seen rather than read.” For a deeper dive, check out this Vox video all about the typeface below.
Cooper Black grew to even greater popularity in the 1960s and 70s due to advancements in printing technology with the invention of phototypesetting machines and dry rub transfers. Rather than using wood or metal type pieces, these techniques used film and paper, making kerning easier and creating new possibilities in layout design. Phototype broke the tyranny of lines and grids, giving the designer more flexibility in space. Phototypositor catalogs also made graphic design more accessible for anyone attempting DIY marketing and advertisements. Cooper Black possessed quirks—the continuity of its curvy, bulbous serifs gave it a smooth flow when spaced tightly; it didn’t require a consistently straight baseline for legibility. More information could fit on the page—it retained its function while maintaining its inviting and expressive qualities. For these reasons, Cooper Black became a popular typeface on early hip hop flyers and posters promoting dance parties in the 70s, linking this typeface to the visual origins of the then-emerging sound, art form, and culture.
Cooper Black has also been used on many classic album covers, from Curtis Mayfield’s Curtis, to Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys. Its legacy in hip hop and R&B still resonates today, not just with Frank Ocean, but also with Anderson .Paak, De La Soul, Thundercat, and fellow Odd Future member, Tyler the Creator, who all used Cooper Black on their albums. Cooper Black even had another pop culture resurgence in 2017 due to some trendy graphic tees.
Frank Ocean pairs Cooper Black with Orator, using it for ‘ULTRA’ which he added next to ‘nostalgia’ to describe the project’s “modern sonics.” Both fonts mirror the juxtaposition between the past and present which he vacillates between lyrically and rhetorically, especially when he weaves sound effects of analog technology—cassette tapes, TV, alarm clocks, within his contemporary beats and pioneering production.
Frank Ocean also visually links both albums with the color orange. nostalgia, ULTRA. features his dream car, a BMW E30 M3, in orange. On channel ORANGE, the color consumes the entire cover, emphasizing how orange evokes the feeling of summer warmth and first love. He admits to experiencing synesthesia, a condition where people see/sense colors associated with music, words, numbers, etc. For him, orange is a feeling, a memory, a sound, and a point of return.
A few years ago, I grew interested in how synesthesia affects and influences what artists create, like Frank Ocean’s sonic and emotional relationship to orange. This was summer 2018, and I had just moved to another new home, New York City. I decided to dedicate that season to daily drawing projects while I enrolled in design classes at Pratt. That August, I wondered what ‘font synesthesia’ could look like—as in, what if you heard a song and saw the lyrics in a particular font in your mind? Each day I picked a lyric from a favorite song, researched a typeface, hand-lettered the words, and posted it on Instagram with a caption that explained my reasoning.
I chose “Thinkin Bout You” as one of the lyrics, drawing the letterforms for “got a fighter jet I don’t get to fly it though” in a typeface called Radio, designed by Magnus Rakeng. First off, I liked the sonic connection of its name and its intimate, retro feel. It’s a script with a slanted axis, which to me represented the tension and sarcasm of the previous lines, “No I don’t like you I just thought you were cool enough to kick it, got a beach house I could sell you in Idaho…” The shape of its lowercase ‘f’ belonged as the symmetric holes on a violin, connecting to the strings at the beginning of the song. The cursive-like letters looked like skywriting—like the kind a pilot would loop around several times, writing “Will you marry me?” in smoke for someone below to then look up when prompted, watching in awe and delight. This song is also such a profession of love—expansive and distant, made to fade away, yet leaving an indelible promise. Yes of course, I remember, how could I forget, how you feel?
Thanks for reading.
p.s. What are your favorite nostalgic songs and albums? Shall we get a playlist going? Comment below!