Frank Ocean’s enigmatic persona is carefully concealed, visible only through his artistry and the minimalistic musings of his Tumblr page. Musically expressive though he may be, Ocean has kept his private life almost entirely away from the public jurisdiction. Ocean represents a tremendous allure, a man with so much to say in so little.
His inscrutable personality only magnifies the compelling artistry which encompasses his new album Blonde and it’s 2012 predecessor Channel Orange. Ocean returned to the music scene over the weekend, releasing both Blonde and its visual sister project Endless via Apple Music.
It’s striking that his new music has abandoned the very essence that made Channel Orange a classic. It is not worse, it is different, a testament to his growth as an artist. His debut studio album encompassed the embers of relaxed Summer evenings but it’s follow-up is better suited for reflective Autumnal nights. A masterclass of keyboard synth and mid-tempo beats, accompanied by provocative lyrics and vocals that unlock the thoughtful potential of the human psyche, Blonde is an ambitious project.
Whilst musically Ocean has diverged, the raw honesty in his lyrics have not. Ocean revealing his attraction to men in a post on his blog in 2012 stimulated controversy in his circles. It takes at least a modicum of bravery to publicly come out, even more so when you operate almost exclusively in the hyper-masculine circles of R&B and hip-hop. It’s a dynamic that has led to some of his best and most frank works. ‘Forrest Gump’ of Channel Orange is the most notable example of Ocean explicitly detailing his romantic attractions for another man. This brave trope has not been abandoned in his latest work, he continues to implicitly and, in places, explicitly refer to other men as love interests. Ocean’s recounts of his love life are never subtle but unapologetic in the beauty of same-sex romance storytelling.
Like his artistry, Ocean’s advocacy is unconventional but potent. He is a man valiant enough to publicise his heart’s frailties and joys at the hands of other men, in a world where there is little reason to feel accepted. Depressingly but unsurprisingly, social media has been entrenched with young straight men complaining that they are ‘uncomfortable’ listening to retellings same-sex attractions. It’s easy to forget in the shroud of his intoxicating music that being LGB in the music industry is anything but easy, something that feels futile to rectify. Whilst homophobia has gradually begun to recoil in most sectors of the entertainment industry, the world of urban music has an issue so rife that many artists refuse to work with Ocean because of his attractions. If Ocean had come out and never touched the subject of his sexuality again, few would have been surprised, even less would have complained – it’s his identity, to do with what he pleases. In truth, it would have been undoubtedly easier had he decided that fugaciously addressing his sexual orientation was the extent to which he would publicly explore his romantic feelings – but one he vetoed. The R&B and hip-hop scenes thrive on their hyper masculine attitudes; vivacious heterosexuality, getting drunk and fucking women. To go against that grain and use his same-sex attractions to enhance his artistry is a staggering testament to his bravery.
It’s the type of courage that spearheads meaningful long-lasting social change. I truly believe that Frank Ocean is the most important visible symbol of LGBT people in popular culture presently. His advocacy is employed without fuss but with great veracity. He regularly uses his Tumblr, the only social media platform he personally wields, to write of his grief for the strife of gay men faced at the hands of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and to offer condolences, solidarity and hope to the LGBT+ community in the face of last month’s shootings at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando.
Of course, activism is integral to the LGBT+ cause, in fact, it’s our very sustenance. But oftentimes the type of activism undertaken by Ocean is overlooked. It’s mundane, it’s ordinary, it’s normal. Ocean talks about being in love with men, about having sex with men and refuses to be contrite for it. He is not a gay artist, he’s an artist sharing the stories of a man who is attracted to other men.
Ocean normalises the LGB lifestyle in spheres where it is considered anything but. He is unrepentant, intrepid, a pioneer of our time.
Hidden in the limited edition zine ‘Boys Don’t Cry’, an accompaniment of the physical copy of Blonde is a poem entitled ‘Boyfriend’. It is a warm love letter to his boyfriend, one that leaves the stomach stewing with jealousy, neck hairs universally dancing with adulation. He unashamedly details his idolisation, and their intimacy, his adoration and their privacy. It is beautiful, it is profound, it is love story, pure and simple.
This is, debatably, Ocean’s true legacy. A phenomenal artist, unquestionably, a man whose talent for singing, writing, rapping and poetry knows few lines it cannot cross – but this is not the main reason for my admiration of Frank Ocean. He is a man who has gone to a place no one else has gone, not because he was asked or expected to, but because he could and because he trusted himself. Hidden in the mid riffs of Blonde is a track which doubles up as a phone call from ‘Mom’, she tells us to trust our own judgements, to refrain from mimicking others and above all else to be ourselves, denotatively this track is about avoiding drugs and alcohol, but I speculate that ‘Be Yourself’ is about something entirely different. Frank Ocean’s service to music is over zealously applauded but his contribution to the LGBT+ cause is so understated it appears unremarkable, but it should be cherished and celebrated. Every day, he changes the world, not by ardent grandstanding or acts of unbridled extravagance but by simply having the courage of conviction to be himself.
Words // Chris Whiting