“It became effortless. Like breathing.”
These were Frank Ocean’s words to GQ in November 2012, after being asked how his relationship – his first love, a man at age 19 – changed his approach to songwriting. The interview took place four months after Ocean opened up about the relationship in a Tumblr post published days before Channel Orange was released. In it, he describes the act of being honest about his history, of having no secrets to keep, as freeing.
But Frank has always been cautious around labels. When Amy Wallace, in the same interview, asked him directly whether he considered himself bisexual, he kindly told her to move on. “I didn't need to label it for it to have impact,” he said, “Because when you're talking about romantic love, both sides in all scenarios feel the same shit. As a writer, as a creator… I'm giving you what I feel like you can feel,” he went on to say. “You can't feel a box. You can't feel a label. Don't get caught up in that shit. There's so much something in life. Don't get caught up in the nothing. That shit is nothing, you know? It's nothing. Vanish the fear.”
This sentiment is often met with uncertainty at best and hostility at worst. For whatever reason, people get anxious when someone can’t, or won’t, be folded into an easily understood group. When someone won’t even concede to bisexuality – a relatively invisible group that many people have trouble believing exists to begin with, preferring to call it "greed" or a pit-stop on the way to being gay – that tends to ruffle feathers among those whose very lives seem to depend on knowing exactly “what” you are. Gawker ran a piece shortly after speculating whether his unwillingness to label himself was similar to someone stating belief in gender equality, but refusing to call themselves a feminist. But if we’ve gleaned anything from the last four years of mainstream discourse, it’s that there is a whole universe of room between the Big Three labels of sexuality, just as there is a broad spectrum of gender identity beyond “male” and “female”.
Frank Ocean is just one of many pop stars rejecting binary norms – from Angel Haze using agender, nonbinary, and pansexual to describe her shifting relationship with gender and sexuality, to Young Thug proclaiming “there’s no such thing as gender” in an advert for Calvin Klein, to Jaden Smith becoming the face of Louis Vuitton womenswear. Ocean’s dialogue around his sexuality is the same as his approach to music: open and vulnerable, but equally unclassifiable.
On Channel Orange and it’s predecessor Nostalgia, Ultra, queerness was hinted at occasionally through the use of male pronouns if it appeared at all. But the way queerness works its way into Blond(e) is different to anything we’ve seen from Ocean, or any other popular male artist, before – whether it’s Bowie toying with androgyny, Prince whipping up male and female energies into an erotic frenzy, or Perfume Genius blowing smoke directly in the face of homophobia. If each of the aforementioned have worked to break down the stigma surrounding labels by owning all the things that society has traditionally vilified, then Frank Ocean has taken things a step further and released a body of work that acts as though those labels never existed in the first place.
Whether he's singing about infidelity on "Nikes" ("You got a roommate he'll hear what we do / It's only awkward if you're fucking him too") or making extremely literal references to the times he gets to fuckin' – "All this drillin' got the dick feelin' like a power tool" on "Comme Des Garçons" from Endless – Ocean has us relating to gay relationships in the way we've been hearing rappers talk about heterosexual relationships for decades. Of course, there are plenty of artists doing this on a more subversive scale – Le1f, Cakes Da Killa and Mykki Blanco to name a few – but their work is often served up as party music; music that advocates dance, movement and drag as a way of healing or escaping the damage daily inflicted upon the LGBT+ community by the world. As far as titanic mainstream music about romantic and existential uncertainty goes, Blond(e) is culture-shifting.
“Self Control” opens with the line “I’ll be the boyfriend in your wet dreams tonight” while “Good Guy” shouts out the gay bar someone takes him to on a blind date. In the “Nikes” video – which is so packed with visual references you’d need an industrial lice comb to go through it – Frank leans against a sports car parked in front of a cherry blossom tree, wearing ripped jeans and winged eyeliner. Elsewhere, a man with a bright red manicure lies naked in a pile of money; a woman reclines on top of a white horse in the rain in tandem with the lyric “must be on that white like Othello”; gear sticks and glitter abound.
Queerness enters into Blond(e) – an album whose title exists in both male and female forms – matter of factly through the universal lenses of love and heartbreak. We need Frank Ocean for his ability to articulate the things we can’t. Yearning, loneliness, and the draw of things that are bad for you: these are the reoccurring themes of Blond(e). He spends the album navigating the memories of people no longer in his life, and the prolonged resonance left by others who were barely in it at all. His battle is internal, grappling with notions of what’s good for him, what’s bad for him; what makes a good person, a bad person. You don’t need to be queer to identify with that.
Blond(e) is punctuated by two cautionary tales. The first comes from a mother delivering a speech about the perils of drugs and alcohol folded into a plea to “Be Yourself”, which is immediately followed by “Solo” and a string of references to acid, coke and weed. “Facebook Story” tells of a relationship destroyed by social media, while the succeeding track “Close To You” gives a short eulogy for another relationship in which the speaker feels abandoned and unsupported. “I’ll be honest, I wasn’t devastated / But you could’ve held my hand through this, baby,” Frank sings through a Prismizer, “I didn’t mind, I didn’t need / Warned your ex”.
In both cases, the advice is ignored; passion is chosen over consequence, and each situation ends up in a place of loneliness and longing. There is a balance of beauty and destruction on Blond(e) that is universally understood. Anybody who has had a few too many and sent the same unconcerned love interest 18 texts in a row has felt it. That pain is there in Frank’s encounters with men who have been unfaithful or not shown up at all, it’s there in the second half of “Good Guy” when a male voice confesses his uncertainty around relationships since “Jasmine fucking wrecked my heart”, and it’s there in producer SebastiAn’s voice when he recounts the story of his girlfriend dumping him after he wouldn’t accept her on Facebook because he saw her every day in real life. Blond(e) may come from a queer artist, but its contents are almost beyond sexuality.
But for every person who praises Blond(e)s vulnerability, there is another who feels “uncomfortable” by the fact that he’s singing about men. When you consider the fact that only 48% of young Americans aged 13-20 identify as exclusively heterosexual and 49% of British 18-24 year old’s define themselves as something other than “straight”, an album like this feels at once perfectly timed and profoundly beyond our culture’s comprehension of queerness. We’re only just beginning to absorb how vast the spectrum of sexual expression is, and for a queer black man operating broadly within the worlds of hip-hop and R&B, Blonde is radical purely in how casually it presents itself.
Frank Ocean operates outside of all labels, beyond fear. Allowing the space for people to be anything other than straight should be as effortless as Blond(e) makes it feel.
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