op-ed: frank ocean is a black, sexually liberated, genre fluid artist creating in an industry that desires sameness
By Sound Check
August 25, 2016
Frank Ocean Is An Iconoclast
If the Grammy-award winning “Channel Orange” was an early indication of Frank Ocean’s predictive future-standing as an iconic artist, “Endless” and “Blonde” are representative of Ocean’s appeal to iconoclasm.
“Consciously though, I don’t want straight—a little bent is good,” he wrote in a Tumblr/Magazine note explaining the inspiration for his album. No to boxes. No to conformity. No to convention. No to the 180. Fuck form. Ocean invites listeners into the bent and the different.
By Darnell L. Moore*, AFROPUNK contributor
In “Endless,” the 45-minute black and white visual album, Ocean appears intermittently throughout. His body moves over the sound of hushed frequencies and between 18 tracks that sound more penultimate than final. But the calm mood of the visual album is a foil to the noisiness found in most mass-produced contemporary Pop, R&B and Hip Hop albums.
Ocean’s measured lyrical flow in “Endless,” for example, is best demonstrated on tracks like “U.N.I.T.Y,” which is reminiscent of Drake’s calculated-style. Ocean’s message is atypical, however. Like Drake, he riffs on the mundane: love and lovelessness. Yet, unlike many mainstream rappers, including Drake, he goes further in his somber meditation by mentioning Palestine and airstrikes. Lyrical tears don’t fall for failed relationships only in Ocean’s oeuvre.
He is poet who moves about focused and unconcerned about the masses in “Endless,” as if he isn’t the subject of a voyeur’s gaze who, like his avid fans, might be trying to figure out what the hell he is building, and why he is building anything, when he should be singing his heart out after four years of relative silence. “Endless” offers a lesson, though.
For those who were patient enough to watch and listen as Ocean crooned through tracks, like his compelling version of the Isley Brother’s already compelling “At Your Best (You Are Love),” they would have discovered the object being built was a set of stairs.
Whether the stairs served as a forewarning of something better to come, Ocean’s sense of the heights present in his future, or a symbolic middle finger to Def Jam who Ocean allegedly has now parted ways with, “Endless” seemed to have been produced for Ocean’s own benefit. He is sending a message to someone, some industry, as if this is a sign of his moment to abscond, to do him for him. And he does.
The four years it took for Ocean to finish and release his works is out step with the spirit of our times which demands quick hits, brief moments to create, chartable wonders, goods to be purchased, and lyrics devoured and quickly regurgitated by consumers. These are neoliberal times and Ocean is seemingly out of step. To be a successful, marketable artist one must produce as much content with as little thought as possible. Artists’ desires be damned.
“Blonde” is a smart and self-centered project, however. Ocean created the album he wanted. The fact that he features other iconoclasts, like Beyoncé, Andre 3000 and Kendrick Lamar, among others whose voices appear as mere phantasmagoric accompaniments on the album, reveals his desire to escape the boxes that genres can become. His music reflects as much. “Night” is one example of a textured track that shifts from a contemporary hip hop sound to a soul inspired flow bridged by an electronica bridge.
Music doesn’t have to be so cohesive and unsurprising to sell. Embellishment works sometimes, but it tends to signal a lack of confidence in the artist or a lack of artistic talent altogether. Tracks that do the most often yield the least. And “Blonde” is a compilation of 17 tracks that are almost bare. The music is not complex, but the lyrics are cause for meditation. The imperfection of the notes Ocean coos in “Siegfried,” for instance, is a foil to 24 bit Pro-Tool musicality we are subjected to now.
“Blonde” contains arresting tracks like “Pink + White” and “Ivy”. It’s not music one sings to; the music sings to you. Andre 3000’s genius “Solo (Reprise)” which includes a dis (“After 20 years in, I’m so naïve I was under the impression that everyone wrote they own verses”) aimed at unoriginal artists who rely on others to write their own music (cue Drake), is a nod to those artists, like Frank, who are trying to create with integrity.
The 17 tracks featured on “Blonde” aren’t anthems, collective sing-along pop songs, but they are Frank’s songs. These aren’t songs all will sing or even understand, but they are meant to be felt. Ocean’s voice possesses deep emotion, which is why it is not a surprise the impassioned gospel singer, Kim Burrell, is featured on the soulful “Godspeed” he notes as conjuring memories of his boyhood days, the days he cried.
But is Ocean overreaching by offering too much of too little? Is “Blonde” too poetic that it escapes meaning, too musically curious that it lacks a core, too theoretical that it betrays the commons and common sense? Or have we, the audience, been socialized to do less work?
Listening to Frank is like the slow pull and release of a good strand of Indica. Experiencing “Blonde” is like walking into an art gallery comprised of white walls and bright lights that are made alive by the abstract paintings adorning them. The minimalist look makes the room appear vast and more commanding than it is but the paintings, if they are done well, are remarkable worlds the audience are invited into.
“Blonde,” which is also spelled “blond” on some album art on Apple music, is a work of art. And like all forms of art, some will appreciate it for what it is and others will lament because of what they expect it to be: less abstract, more hip, less packaged, more normal, less strange, more black, less white. But the album might very well be a play on and critique of the boundaries that compel artists to create music that cages them in. Frank invokes pop, hip hop, alternative, folk, gospel and R&B elements in his works and seems to be posing the question: which bodies are allowed to create such works?
Given that, “Blonde” is a critique of the limits that bind artists. The industry’s, and larger society’s, reliance on whiteness, maleness, heterosexuality, and US centeredness, is called into question.
Maybe that’s why the “e” falls off the end of “blonde” on the Apple Music artwork as a way of upsetting our imagination of whiteness as the center of all things. Maybe Frank is challenging us to remember black folk engaging musical terrain otherwise ensconced in whiteness should not be looked upon as exceptional niggas trying to master white people’s music or appeal to the white gaze inasmuch as it is evidence of a black artist’s keen agility?
Is Frank Ocean fly because he is queering hip hop, pop and R&B as genres? Is Frank cool because he is a man evading sexual boundaries and creating music in a field where flowers and construction tools exist together? Is it enough to love his art because of his desire to flow in the fluid as if identities and expressions are enough to make good music? Or is his music good because it is and would be something different if his ways of being and expression were different and weren’t shaping his art in the background?
Maybe I’m giving Ocean way too much credit because I see so much of myself in him? Maybe I’m a bad critic for feeling and admitting that truth? Maybe our thirst for an illusion of objectivity is what pains music making and criticism today? Because we won’t fuck with or talk about the shit that feels too distant from us — too not us — unless it’s a perpetrator fronting sounds as if it’s theirs when it’s ours or someone else’s? How many will turn off Frank’s music when they hear him actually mention “a gay bar” in his song “Good Guy,” a rap joint at that?
What does it mean to depart form and resist expectation? What does it take to create the type of art that flows from the artist’s creative source — from the place that black lesbian feminist poet Audre Lorde once called the erotic, the place from whence the world is fed because it comes from one’s soul? And how does one achieve that in a marketplace designed to pitch fanciful products to consumers and not thoughtful cultural productions?
It takes a type of willed self-control. And, sometimes, attempts at controlling for self means ignoring the whispers moving about en masse asking of the artist to be something and someone other than what and who they are. It matters that Ocean is a black, sexually liberated, genre fluid, artist from New Orleans creating music in the age of hip hop that emerges from a dreamscape of difference in a time when the record industry desires sameness.
* Darnell L. Moore is a senior editor and correspondent at Mic and co-managing editor of The Feminist Wire. He is presently writing a memoir tentatively titled, No Ashes in the Fire.
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