Are We Ready for Frank Ocean?

Jul 20, 2012

Within a week’s time, New Orleans born crooner Frank Ocean released two of the most candid and potentially important documents for a generation. The first offering came in the form of a public love letter, which lays bare his affections for another man. The second is a courageous debut album, Channel Orange, which dares beautifully to reveal how those affections shaped his worldview.
Frank Oceans’ love letter is just that. It doesn’t read like a coming out letter as much as it is a personal reflection on transformation. In the letter, Ocean shared a universal story of how hard it is to love someone who can’t reciprocate. The letter would not be as significant if Ocean wasn’t a black, male R&B singer that is affiliated with the hip-hop community. Ocean is a member of the collective Odd Futures, which in its own right is an assemblage of iconoclastic hipsters whose irreverence affronts the hip-hop archetype.
When you think of Odd Futures think of Nirvana and Kurt Cobain. After Cobain, we never looked at  “hair bands” quite the same. The realness of Cobain peeled away the painted on make-up of his contemporaries and left nothing but songs, which were most often as shallow as end-of-party gumbo pots. Similarly, Ocean and Odd Futures’ music replaces the tattooed costumes that rappers and R&B singers wear to cover their thin art. 
If you’re looking for some fantastical voyage through the ghetto, Channel Orange is not the album for you.  But it is the album you need.  Ocean doesn’t hide from the range of problems in the hood. He affronts them with honesty and deals with its consequences.  
For instance, in the song Bad Religion, Ocean writes: 

            If it brings me to my knees, it’s a bad religion; 
            Unrequited love, To me it’s nothing but a one man cult

Ocean clearly challenges religious sects’ responses (or lack thereof) to homosexuality.  He also shows how unanswered love is a self-destructive philosophy in itself. Ocean’s openness to suffering distinguishes himself from his contemporaries.
Remember when R&B put forth black suffering through the captivating wails of the singer. Remember when hip-hop spoke when news agencies wouldn’t on what’s going on in the hood with great wit and clarity. What’s absent from contemporary R&B music is blues. What’s missing from hip-hop is realness.  Ocean’s album Channel Orange doesn’t hide from the pain or realities of urban living and dying. Consequently, Ocean simultaneously became the best rapper and R&B singer in one album.

Ocean discovering romantic love from another man should not give us pause. Black, gay courage is nothing new. Although Ocean has not claimed a specific sexual identity, we can’t let our frailties as a society consume Ocean like Cobain. We must reciprocate our love for Ocean as well as for truth.
Ocean’s artistry reminds us that honesty will always teach the right lessons. But as the Buddhist proverb goes, “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”  I hope folks are ready for Frank Ocean.