The hottest young star in R&B/hip-hop crossover music just told the world he loved a man.
For a long time now, I’ve been saying that Frank Ocean has restored my faith in R&B, the previously soulful black music genre that has been co-opted by mainstream corporations and misrepresented by the mediocrity brought to bear by dudes with wack names and even wacker music. Armed with razor-sharp writing skills, careful songcraft and a decidedly defiant hip-hop soul, the 24-year-old New Orleans native has strode onto the music landscape and quickly made fans of popular music’s brightest stars: Adele, Nas, Prodigy, Jay-Z. Ocean’s genre-defying 2011 mixtape, Nostalgia, Ultra, represents “originality that has been lost in R&B,” points out Philadelphia-based rapper Cee Knowledge, formerly of the Grammy Award-winning trio Digable Planets. “Most R&B songs are made to fit the radio format, and a lot of [Ocean’s] topics aren’t very mainstream-friendly. He brings up subjects that some people are scared to talk or even sing about.”
It’s true: If Drake and Chris Brown were to hold a lyrical boxing match, Ocean would win, gloves down. In “Swim Good,” he contemplates existential transcendence and suicide, crooning: “I’m about to drive in the ocean/I’ma try to swim for something bigger than me.” In “American Wedding,” he revises the Eagles’ “Hotel California,” keeping the music but layering it with lyrics that deconstruct the institution of marriage: “Just an American wedding/They don’t mean too much/They don’t last enough/We had an American wedding/Now what’s mine is yours/American divorce.” I wouldn’t have thought it possible to so effectively repurpose such an iconic melody, but I’ll never again hear “Hotel California” without thinking of Ocean’s sense of the vulnerable, transitory nature of an institution that many want to claim exclusively for heterosexual men and women.
For a young, up-and-coming artist to so recklessly distinguish himself from the pack of celebrity wannabes and auto-tune crooners—to come along, fuse together musical subgenres in an uncommon way and prove that pop music can still have real heft and substance—is not unheard of, but it is always amazingly refreshing. That was last year, though. Now, as Philadelphia prepares for Ocean’s sold-out concert next Wednesday at Union Transfer, a few things have changed.
Two weeks ago, in the wee hours of Independence Day, Ocean took to his Tumblr account to post a letter—reportedly meant to be part of the liner notes of his stellar debut LP, Channel ORANGE— poignantly detailing his first love, a simmering summer crush that was devastatingly unrequited. As he recounts the realization of the depth of his feelings and the fact that they would not be reciprocated, he writes: “Imagine being thrown from a plane. I wasn’t in a plane though.” Lines in his letter are not unlike lyrics in some of Ocean’s evocative, stripped-down songs. But for many of his fans and cultural critics alike, the most striking aspect was not Ocean’s uncanny ability to express the depths of human emotion and experience. The most surprising feature was Ocean’s admission that his first love was a man.
“I sat there and told my friend how I felt,” Ocean wrote. “I wept as the words left my mouth. I grieved for them. Knowing I could never take them back for myself. He patted my back. He said kind things. He did his best, but he wouldn’t admit the same. He had to go back inside soon. It was late and his girlfriend was waiting for him upstairs. He wouldn’t tell the truth about his feelings for me for another 3 years. I felt like I’d only imagined reciprocity for years.”
Simple and direct, just like his artistry, Ocean’s words immediately reminded me of how he challenged me to reconsider popular R&B, a genre I had all but forsaken. His honesty is both poignant and startlingly brave at the same time: He must have understood that the revelation could have unpredictable ramifications for his career trajectory, for his whole life—but his desire for personal liberation outstripped all else. It’s precisely the same quality that’s most beautiful about his music. And within minutes of his Tumblr post, the Internet—especially social media—went wild.
Donja Love, a black, gay Philadelphia playwright and director, was one of the countless thousands of Ocean fans who took to Twitter to weigh in and to see what all the others had to say about his admission. “Some people were proud and accepting,” he notes, “but some others were just hateful, saying they wouldn’t listen to his music anymore, that they would delete his songs from their iTunes accounts. I wondered if these people would have been so direct if they weren’t hiding behind a computer screen.”
Ocean’s missive, Love notes, opens the door of possibility for other individuals to understand what a black man can be. “Those not a part of the LGBT lifestyle may have a certain, limited idea of a black gay man,” he says, “but there are a multitude of black gay males out there who do not fit into our [stereotypical] notions of it.”
This unexpected conversation has sparked a revolution in public and private discussions about sexual identity in black culture. It has also called into question the ways in which we decide to make distinctions between rap and R&B—two genres that have, at different times, been seen as completely separate, musically fused, and/or interchangeable.
Ocean’s announcement is not, technically, a hip-hop first. Cultural historian and blogger Davey D cites DJs Page Hodel and Blackstone, as well as other less-well-known hip-hop acts like Invincible, Katastrophe, Dutchboy and Deep Dickollective. Still, Ocean’s high profile puts him in a whole different arena from these predecessors—and raises the question, for some, of whether he’s “hip-hop enough to count.”
The constituents and artisans of hip-hop culture have always policed its boundaries zealously, mostly to defend against its inevitable co-opting by mainstream forces. Along the way, hyper-masculinity of the hetero kind has been seen as a central feature of the music—so much so that many hip-hop heads think of R&B as being a “softer” form of black musical expression, and thus a more appropriate place for someone like Frank Ocean to express his love for another man. While that’s hardly a universal attitude, it’s pervasive enough that it’s produced some interesting discussion between music pros trying to process why fans are responding to Ocean specifically in the context of hip-hop.
“I’ve always thought of Frank Ocean as an R&B singer,” Public Enemy icon Chuck D told an NME reporter at July 6’s Open’er festival in Gdynia, Poland. “When people say that this is a hip-hop first, it’s not really, because he’s not a straight rapper—no pun intended. He may be part of Odd Future, but he’s a singer … I commend Frank Ocean for coming out and saying it, but it’s not a first because there’s plenty of black male gay singers. Even when they don’t admit it, you kind of know. If you heard somebody like—I don’t want to say a name, because people will talk—but like [for instance] somebody in the Wu-Tang Clan or something—if they came out, then that would be groundbreaking.”
Cee Knowledge agrees: “It’s like the mainstream media always loves to mix hip-hop and R&B for some reason. Like it was all one thing, but it’s not. Hip-hop does have some singing in it, and R&B does have some rapping in it, but I would assume, if I was an R&B singer, I would definitely want to be thought of as an R&B singer, not as a hip-hop artist.”
As traditional “real black man” ideals begin to erode in the face of recent cultural forces, though—metrosexual fashion sensibilities, sexually revolutionary songs like MURS’ “Animal Style,” the hugely popular emotive style of current rap superstar Drake—many of these distinctions begin to fold in upon themselves.
Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, the author and former Penn professor who’s now a regular commentator on MSNBC, suggests to PW that it’s hair-splitting to suggest that Frank Ocean somehow doesn’t belong to hip-hop. “First, he sings for the Odd Future collective,” Dyson says, “and then he sang on one of hip-hop’s recent classics, Watch the Throne, with two of the biggest hip-hop legends, Jay-Z and Kanye West. Frank Ocean may have co-signed their song that there’s ‘No Church in the Wild,’ but in the wilderness of same-sexuality struggling for survival in a heterosexual state, he’s damn sure established a powerful sanctuary.”
Dyson points out the rampant tendency toward bromance in hip-hop as an important factor in understanding the significance of Ocean’s words. “Even when [hip-hop artists] express same-sex affiliation and masculine solidarity, they’ve got to be careful to distinguish that from the suggestion of homosexuality via the phrase ‘No homo.’ Well, Ocean’s coming out says: ‘Yes, homo.’ And it’s not just a meaningful gesture for him, but for all those artists unsure of their nontraditional sexual orientations and for those unsure about how they fit in.”
Three days after the Ocean story broke, Dyson appeared on fellow scholar Melissa Harris-Perry’s MSNBC weekend morning show to talk about the significance of an artist whom hip-hop heads love and follow professing his love for another man. Harris-Perry framed the discussion: “In speaking his truth so boldly and honestly, Frank Ocean didn’t just display his courage, but he also challenged hip-hop culture finally to face some of its demons.” Dyson called Ocean’s letter “courageous, unavoidably symbolic and collective. It’s courageous because it represents a gifted artist on the rise, at the beginning of his career, publicly contesting heterosexual orthodoxy. It is symbolic and collective because it carriers the weight of all queer artists who have to tangle with a generation of hip-hop artists who’ve built their reputations on machismo, bluster and brutal heterosexuality.”
The two rightly noted that one liberating aspect is that Ocean does not assign any static category—gay, straight, bi—to this deep meditation on his first love. Instead, we are left to consider the full spectrum of human sexuality. Interestingly, Ocean’s previous endorsement of marriage equality came before President Obama’s, and before many of hip-hop stars and stalwarts followed suit. On Nostalgia, Ultra’s “We All Try,” Ocean sings, “I believe that marriage isn’t between a man and woman, but between love and love”—a lyric much simpler than a political statement and far more powerful. This is the substance at the heart of his music’s quality. And isn’t that, as Nas says, most important?
For all of the commentary and punditry surrounding, supporting and scrutinizing Ocean’s moment of truth, we must appreciate what it means for young people. While Philly has its own thriving gay and lesbian communities, neighborhoods and media, many LGBT youth of color nonetheless struggle to find their way and their place in a broader society that still subscribes to the textbook homophobia that leads to violence and discrimination.
PW's Music Issue 2014