Frank Ocean is bisexual. His public declaration a couple of weeks ago via his Tumblr page that at age 19, he had fallen in love with a guy, made immediate headlines. The blogosphere and national media outlets alike were reporting on Ocean’s admission, and for good reason: Although the singer had up until this point enjoyed only mild success, the revelation about his first love literally makes him the most–if not the first–recognizable mainstream hip hop/r&b artist to come out of the closet. Overnight, millions of people were talking, not about Frank Ocean’s artistry, but about his sexuality; touting him as a gay rights activist, and either applauding or denigrating his decision to share such intimate information with the world.
Every artist to some degree commits to creating a public persona; a larger than life character that is strong enough and interesting enough to both propel and sustain them on an international stage. Katy Perry’s flashy outfits, 50 Cents’ cash-driven thuggery, and Nicki Minaj’s exaggerated everything all speak to this phenomenon. The balance, then, becomes ensuring that while your image (and thereby your popularity) grows, your art doesn’t shrink in the process. And as society scrambles to label people, to place them into rigid boxes that dis-allow them to be 3 dimensional human beings, the music must somehow be protected.
So what about the album? Is there enough genius behind Channel Orange to stand up to the hype that the media machine is creating, and to overcome the labels that will inevitably be placed on Ocean at such a crucial time in his nascent career?
The answer is a resounding yes. Channel Orange is a record done on the artist’s own terms. Missing are the obvious celebrity guest features that one might expect for him to have in order to ensure radio play (you gotta go somewhere else for that 2 Chainz verse). He could have easily snagged the more sought-after collaborations as it was widely reported that Kanye West wanted to executive produce the album, an offer that Frank declined. Also absent is the r&b/techno hybrid sound that everyone seems to be making right now to, again, ensure spins. What is present is Frank Ocean, his haunting voice, beautifully complex beats comprised of stripped-down melodies, and potent lyrics. These elements blend to create a sonically rich work that touches other senses, as well; Channel Orange feels real.
The kid’s a wordsmith. At a time when up and coming artists spend their energy figuring out the millionth new way to sing a hook about a girl’s ass or their supposed sexual prowess, it takes a brave soul to create a project with actual subject matter that people can relate to while still being entertained. On “Bad Religion”, a melancholy organ plays as Ocean pines,
This unrequited love//
to me it’s nothing but a one-man cult//
and cyanide in my styrofoam cup//
I could never make him love me
and on “Thinking About You”, he beautifully sings that his
[Love] won’t ever get old//
not in my soul//
not in my spirit//
keep it alive.
Yes, men fall in love, too. And they feel pain when that love is unrealized, a tiny fact that the majority of singers looking to make it big on major labels believe that they need to keep buried beneath vapid, hyper-sexualized lyrics. Ironically, it took the lone singer in L.A. based hip hop crew Odd Future, coincidentally known for their often violent and homophobic lyrics, to remind us.
Once we’re reminded, however, Ocean expands the discussion on love, pain and growth to include universal questions from the human experience. He uses his falsetto to philosophize about life’s meaning, to discuss drug addiction and materialism, and of course, to reveal the many faces of unattained love: love for self, love for family and friends, love for life and for the universe. He never leaves the audience behind on this journey, taking us for a ride that allows us to explore the four corners of his mind while simultaneously revisiting our own loves and losses and pain. He goes a step further, pushing boundaries by ending songs abruptly, interspersing the record with jarring sounds of radio static, and pieces of broken conversation. The result is almost hypnotic; while the music is on, you curl up between the notes and let it carry you, but when the song ends you’re left with a barrage of questions:
“Did he really just call a pipe a “glass dick” in Crack Rock?”
“Did he really just hit that note in Pilot Jones?”
“What is he saying about the displaced power of Black femininity in Pyramids?”
“Wait, is he harmonizing on Pink Matter with one of the greatest lyricists of all time?”
“What is happening to me right now?”
“Holy shit…’’ (goes back to Start)
There’s a lot of hype surrounding Frank Ocean right now, a lot of it for the wrong reasons. Is he a champion for admitting that he isn’t heterosexual? Arguably. Brave is an accurate depiction to bestow upon him, but when we call him that let’s do it for the right reason: he has put together a body of work that is courageous in lyrical content and composition. His music is creating a unique lane whereby his creativity can flourish in a space where vulnerability and strength, pain and pleasure, are not contradictory; they are two sides of a very human experience. If there was ever a time to ignore the headlines and to let the music speak for itself, it is now. Resist the urge to play into the nonsense. Don’t deify him or demonize him for loving another man. Just press play. Do it with an open mind, and allow yourself to enjoy every color that his voice paints. Trust me, you won’t want to change the channel.