Frank Ocean’s “Self Control” makes me want to cry.
I’m not sure what to blame, the lingering guitar, the longing strain in his voice or the desperation of a statement like, “I’ll sleep between y’all, it’s nothing.” But the sentiment is familiar: a nonsensical desire for faux intimacy – even at the sake of my ultimate well-being. With each replay, my feels are punctured deeper, and a slightly overwhelming sadness sets in. It’s kind of like the joke people make about the #TheDrakeEffect; all of a sudden, I missed a boyfriend I never had or a love I never lost. And one blaring, beautiful fact hovered throughout: This song might not be about a relationship between a man and a woman.
Upon the release of Blonde – which covertly made its way onto Apple Music on a Saturday evening (Aug. 20) – the internet spent quite a while trying to pin down the official name of the album. The streaming service had it listed as “Blonde,” while the cover art read “blond.” Which one was it? Only after the frenzy began to settle did people begin to consider whether or not the dichotomy had been intentional. Perhaps Frank Ocean’s use of both the feminine and masculine spellings of the word were contributions to a larger message. Maybe we were all being deliberately forced outside of our inherent need to “check a box.” To identify. To categorize.
This was when I realized that any “sophomore slump” myth for Frank Ocean was peppered with seasoning of a different kind. He is a Black man, openly queer, a Grammy Award-winning R&B star and he has released an album for mainstream consumption. Though his momentous 2012 Tumblr announcement preceded his debut album Channel Orange by just three days, the singer was not yet a bonafide new-age music mainstay. His cult following and the stellar 2011 ‘tape Nostalgia Ultra would earn him the No. 2 spot with 131,000 in sales in its first week, and four years later, he is eyeing the No. 1 spot with 250,000 units in equivalent sales. The stakes are higher. The distinction is made. There are no rumors to clear up, no revelations to post. And this makes one thing more true than ever before.
With Blonde, Frank Ocean etches in stone that modern R&B does not have to cater to women.
The roots of today’s R&B have been deeply planted in the woman. The classics are professions of love to or from us. The babymakers are odes to our bodies. The certified jams are either by us, for us or about us. We have served as R&B’s muse and subject for over a decade, shaping a genre that largely caters to our feelings, our sexuality, and our relationships. While settled into our place as the center of the music, we are finally presented with an entirely different perspective. After struggling to climb out of my feels on “Self Control,” I am escorted by Frank Ocean into a gay bar on the next Blonde track, “Good Guy.” The rambling interlude details a quintessential “homie hookup,” where Frank embarks on a friend-recommended blind date with a man in New York. There I am, taking in a sonic scene that has nothing to with me and I am content, smirking even, as I relate to the notion, “You text nothing like you look.”
Even as a mere spectator, Blonde is an engaging and immersive experience. Its enduring ambiguity goes beyond social politics and carves out a standard for creativity. In place of tortured brushstrokes of unrequited love, Frank Ocean’s pen dips itself in an array of a more colorful existence. Chocolate undertones are referred to as “dark skin of a summer shade.” Séances bring past relationships back to life. Thought processes are thoroughly described as “Dreaming a thought that could dream about a thought / That could think of the dreamer that thought / That could think of dreaming and getting a glimmer of God.” The artist is as poetic as ever, abandoning the shadows for artful, layered storytelling that does not rely on who – or what – the listener is. In his formal introduction to Blonde and his Boys Don’t Cry magazine, Frank reveals that his love affair with cars served as a major component of his creative process. “Raf Simons once told me it was cliché, my whole car obsession. Maybe it links to a deep subconscious straight boy fantasy. Consciously though I don’t want straight – a little bent is good.” Thankfully for us all, Frank Ocean didn’t give us his truth to flee. He is absolved and reveling in his existence.
There has been no sonic experience – on such a grand stage – close to that of Frank Ocean’s. Sam Smith managed to make a monster smash album as an openly gay soul singer, but before he was Sam Smith The Grammy Darling, to many, he was unknown. Michael Jackson made his way onto the Billboard charts with hits that had nothing to do with women. But he was a pop artist, and did not identify as a gay man. We have speculated about the sexuality of a slew of singers, but never have women known the truth, and accepted it at this capacity. Even in spite of a few dishonorable mentions.
In unequivocal references to women, Frank Ocean is unafraid to be brash. On “Nikes,” a gold digger must be on cocaine if she thinks she’s getting a “check.” On “Solo,” he states, “But you gotta hit the p***y raw though,” despite the consequences of pregnancy. “Good Guy” ends with one man’s proclamation that he doesn’t “care about b*****s like that.” A “Facebook Story” skit finds French DJ Sebastian Akchoté-Bozovic sharing how his ex-girlfriend let social media kill their relationship. Women are a part of the story, but we’re less its protagonist and more its foil. Yet, the substitution does not equate to dilution.
Navigating the uncharted waters of mainstream R&B as an openly queer black man, Frank Ocean succeeded in finally imploding an old formula. The genre does not require the woman to play an outward role, nor does it depend on her to be received by the masses.
And we all seem to be fine with that.
(Photo: Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for The Huffington Post)