How Frank Ocean Impacts “Black” Music
To begin, this post isn’t primarily about Frank Ocean’s sexuality or what it means to the hip-hop/R&B genre, one that is famously rigid in gender roles and definitions of sexuality, but it is partially about that. Any nuanced discussion about Frank Ocean’s recent stellar release, “Channel Orange” and its place in music today must at least partly address his sexuality, because it is an open topic of discussion in the lyrics and also sets the social framework for how we (Black hip-hop culture) view the album. But I think the explicit subject of his revealing his relationship with a man has been pretty thoroughly discussed by famous Black pundits, so I’ll leave that to them. To be honest, given how good Mr Ocean’s music is and how quickly public opinion is shifting in favor of LGBTQ issues, I think when it’s all said and done, his sexuality will be a distant secondary or tertiary component to his greater impact on the genre. What he’s really doing is a bit deeper.
I’ve talked earlier about the main social “currencies” available to most famous Black people in pop culture. Most famous Black people trade only on one of four currencies; sexiness, coolness, scariness, and ignorance; often to the point of caricature. This is especially true in hip-hop (for the purposes of this post, “hip-hop” refers to the combined rap, R&B, and “Neo-Soul” genres and all constituent genres), where anti-intellectualism is touted (Waka Flocka), and nerdiness and faux-punk culture are only accepted insofar as they are cool. Frank himself hails from the collective that is the current bastion of Black “scariness” and shock-rap, in Odd Future. His chosen genre is currently fraught with unsubtle and explicit songs about sex and nothing else. Trey Songz is the poster child. Chris Brown has been reduced to an almost laser-like focus on sex songs and soulless music completely devoid of introspection, and I think part of the instability in his mental health is part of that. The chronicles of D’Angelo, who left music and whose life spiraled out of control after feeling too pressured to deliver on the sex post-Untitled, have been well documented.
With respect to sexual preference and orientation, hip-hop is even more strict. The “f-bomb” is passed around often to anyone not seen as ultra-manly. Hip-hop is a sort of cartoonish heterosexuality contest where rappers and singers try to fit in as many boasts as possible about having sex with other men’s girlfriends. There isn’t much space for committed and faithful men with or those with less aggressive, less public relations, let alone space for those on the LGBTQ spectrum. Women are expected to be just as hypersexual and subservient to the man. Bisexuality or lesbianism in women in hip-hop is only tolerated as far as it proves to be “sexy” to straight men (see Nicki Minaj versus Queen Latifah).This is the context into which Frank Ocean’s album, Channel Orange, and by extension his letter detailing that he once loved a man, were released. Both the album and the letter decisively challenge the normal social currencies out there. There’s a level of emotion and introspection in the album that are simply not accepted in mainstream male artists’ music. Emotion is seen as weakness in an arena where men are not allowed to have weakness. Introspection is the realm of women or less-manly men.
And I guess this is where Frank’s letter preceding the album release gave him a lot of flexibility. By couching the album within his sexuality, he let us know from the start that the content would not be judged by the rigid ruler of Black masculinity in hip-hop. And it forced those whose views are guided by that ruler and like his music to either reconcile with his vision and accept their wrongness or leave the debate. So, even though a solid majority of the album is written from a unisex or a heterosexual point of view, it discusses emotions, feelings, and context that are simply unapproachable in other albums in the genre. Even the songs that swap out generic or feminine pronouns for masculine ones are approachable from the outside and by people with differing love lives. In a sense, the letter-album combo feels like Frank had the last laugh; the joy of watching Black culture scramble to understand and define him while he asserted quietly that his sexuality was one of many things that made up who he was, but didn’t entirely define him like it does many of his peers. It was him refusing to trade on those social currencies and making his own art, despite the obvious danger to his popularity. It was risky, but ultimately I think it was his bravery and his choice of subject matter that place him closer to Marvin and Stevie (I’m saying nothing about talent here) than to most artists today.
What does this mean for the art today? I don’t know. But I do know that Channel Orange is a non-trivial milestone in a wave of artists who are seriously challenging current sensibilities. It’s guy who we rushed to define if he was gay or bisexual (and who lost many fans who didn’t want to listen to “gay music”) making music that transcends all of that and simply resonates with humanity. That’s where I think things are hopefully headed. Where Black artists can simply make the art that moves them and connects with all people without having to worry about whether their work is cool or sexy or shocking or scary or dumbed-down enough to connect. Soul music was once the soundtrack of a great time of social upheaval in the Civil Rights Movement and its children, hip-hop and R&B in their nascence were the impetus for one of the most important movements of young people and the definition of a whole culture in the late 80s and early 90s. I think artists like Frank and music like Channel Orange are steps in the right direction to reviving the lost anima of a hollow art. I may be overhyping things, but it seems like any spark is vital nowadays.