We all get the sense that albums like To Pimp a Butterfly and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy have an entire world of stories and depth buried inside them, but podcaster Cole Cuchna is one of the rare humans who have actually spent the crazy amount of time it takes to bring them all out. Each season of his Dissect podcast spends more than a dozen episodes taking apart a single album, boiling down dozens of hours of research into production details, lyric meanings, and artist life stories into tight thirty-minute segments. The results have been highly rated by both the music media and superfans alike for their sincerity and depth-of-insight into the creative process behind each album.
For the first two seasons of Dissect, which drilled down on the previously mentioned Kanye and Kendrick albums, Cuchna worked on the podcast as a side hustle, putting in dozens of late-night sessions "in a state of exhaustion" after his day job had finished and his wife and daughter had gone to sleep. Now, thanks to a new partnership with Spotify, Dissect is Cuchna's full time concern, and the third season reflects that expanded focus by taking on Frank Ocean, an artist whose catalogue of nuanced and deeply referential music makes him a perfect subject for this sort of ultra-nerdy analysis.
This season further expands the show's scope by focusing on not one, but two albums, with both channel ORANGE and Blonde each getting their own devoted run of episodes. Cuchna recently told Pigeons and Planes that with an artist like Frank, there just wasn't any other way to approach it: "I was really interested in exploring the transition between channel ORANGE and Blonde. It’s such an artistic leap, a complete sonic one-eighty. I felt to fully understand and appreciate Blonde, you had to know channel ORANGE."
As of this writing, we're four episodes in to the mini-season focusing on channel ORANGE, and Cuchna's is taking us to full-on Frank Ocean graduate school. Here are the kind of details that keep us coming back for more.
Frank's mom used to tell him to "stop hollering" when he would sing Prince songs as a child
Ah stars, they're just like us. The young Frank Ocean was (natch) obsessed with the Purple One, and as hard-working-and-possibly-very-stressed parents are known to do, his mom was having none of Ocean's youthful experiments with vocals. As Cuchna quotes, the feedback from his mother made Ocean "...all self conscious about how I sounded, like the tone of my voice or how loud I was. But I vividly remember the first time I heard Prince singing 'The Beautiful Ones', this grown man just singing for his life. I remember thinking 'OK kid, go off.' Prince made it all OK."
But it's not actually Frank's mom on the "Not Just Money" skit
Pretty much any Frank Ocean superfan tumblr will tell you that is, but Cuchna has learned the actual identity of the woman giving the speech (who also appear's on Blonde's "Be Yourself") about appreciating values in life beyond money, and it isn't actually Christopher Edwin Breaux's mother. Her real name is Rosie Watson, and according to Cuchna she's the mother of Ocean's good friend Jonathan, who became a maternal figure to the entire Odd Future crew, with folks like Tyler referring to her as "Auntie". She sounds pretty cool.
Hurricane Katrina destroyed Frank's first studio, sending him on the path to a songwriting career in L.A.
It's a well-known part of Frank-lore that in 2005, just before Hurricane Katrina hit, Ocean was attending college in New Orleans while simultaneously working on his fledgling songwriting skills. The storm's destruction was a major factor in driving him west to Los Angeles. But Cuchna reveals the less commonly known fact that it wasn't the storm per se that motivated the move, but rather a local recording studio Ocean was using that got totally "looted and destroyed" during Katrina's chaotic aftermath. The switch from musician/student to full time musician in L.A. was huge for Ocean, as he found himself developing a legit career in the local songwriting scene, penning tracks for artists like John Legend and Brandy. It's wild to imagine the alternate directions Frank's artistic career could have taken if that particular studio in NOLA had stayed locked up during the storm.
Frank Ocean might have processed your insurance claim (if you had Allstate a decade ago)
Most Ocean fans know his semi-glamorous origin story of long days spent in L.A. studios penning songs for other artists, but he's plenty open about the less-than-exciting jobs he also had at the time. Cuchna quotes an interview where Ocean talks about stints as a "sandwich artist" at Subway and a patty-flipper at Fatburger, but the most intriguing job has to be Ocean's time as an insurance claims processor at Allstate. A nice thing to imagine next time they put you on a two-hour hold.
"Novacane" likely contains a reference to pretty wild-sounding research chemical
Cuchna's extremely in-depth approach to the nostalgia, ULTRA track "Novacane" reveals that not only was Frank definitely specifically referencing the 2010 Coachella festival (the only year to feature the song's referenced performances from both Z-Trip and Jay-Z), Ocean was likely referencing another 2010 phenomenon: the brief appearance of Nova, a trippy research chemical that Cuchna quotes Urban Dictionary as saying is a "safe, potent, psychedelic drug, with effects often described as a combination of Ecstacy and LSD." Maybe that's whats in the "ice blue bong" the song's subject hands Frank earlier in the verse...
An entire lost verse from "Super Rich Kids"
On a Spotify-exclusive bonus episode, Cuchna reveals a live performance of "Super Rich Kids" that replaces Earl's verse with a third one from Ocean himself. The "lost verse" takes the track even further into Bret Easton Ellis territory, pushing the emptiness of brands and wealth into the center of attention as Ocean raps about friends and lovers only sticking around so they can steal his designer clothes. In Cuchna's estimation, the verse is a reminder that the song is ultimately a gesture towards the value of character and happiness over money, and it's hard not to agree with him.
Frank's open tumblr letter was honestly even braver than we remember.
Everybody knows how brave it was when Frank spoke openly of his love for a man in his now infamous 2012 open letter. In the past few years, as more and more queer artists take their rightful seats at hip-hop's table, our memories of what that moment 2012 felt like become hazier and hazier. But Cuchna, to his credit as a researcher, cites an array of tracks that reveal just how insanely tight the grip of homophobia was on the culture in the years before Frank's letter. Inspired by Kanye West's 2005 call out of anti-gay attitudes in rap, Cuchna reminds us that everyone from Q-Tip to Jazzy Jeff was (pretty grossly, as those links will show) upfront about their attitudes about queer culture's place in hip-hop - and it took Frank Ocean's letter (and the songs whose meanings it opened up) to definitely break a chain of silence and discrimination that stretched back decades.