On July 4, Frank Ocean celebrated Independence Day by posting on his Tumblr page an open letter detailing the same-sex relationship that was his first true love affair. In just two deeply moving, marvelously written paragraphs, the singer became a trending topic — the first male R&B star to out himself and challenge notions of masculinity long linked to both his chosen musical genre and the black community.
Ocean’s big reveal came as he prepped his major label debut, Channel Orange, and now that the record has dropped, we’re able to soak it all in — the blog post, the songs, and the courageous, conflicted man from which they spring — and ask ourselves: What has Frank Ocean taught us about love?
1. Love is abhorrently cruel and really freakin’ complicated.
OK, so we already knew this, but the situation Frank writes about in his Tumblr manifesto is especially heartbreaking. After it became clear his lover wasn’t willing to face his feelings and leave his girlfriend, Ocean did whatever he could to keep the guy in his life. “I took breaths and carried on,” the singer writes. “I kept up a peculiar friendship with him because I couldn’t imagine keeping up my life without him. I struggled to master myself and my emotions. I wasn’t always successful.” Heterosexuals will recognize themselves in this behavior, but imagine how hard that “everything is fine” charade must have been for Ocean, then a 19- or 20-year-old kid confronting gay feelings while struggling to succeed in a showbiz field dominated by alpha-male bedroom prowlers like Usher and R. Kelly. The heart wants what the heart wants; the psyche can go screw itself.
2. Certain types of women are hopelessly attracted to gay men.
Lena Dunham’s tweet says it all: “A lot can be explained by the fact that Frank Ocean came out and NOW I have a crush on him.” Is it masochism or the safety of not having to commit that leads some ladies to covet the forbidden fruit (no pun in intended)? Stay tuned to HBO’s “Girls” to find out.
3. Love’s Official Music: Still R&B
Ever since the late ‘90s, when Prince started, well, we wont’ say sucking, since 2006’s 3121 was pretty decent, but certainly being a little less awesome than he was before, R&B has lacked figures willing and able to sing about relationships with the candor, humor, and absurdity required. On Channel Orange, Ocean muses on how everything from class — check out “Super Rich Kids” and “Sweet Life” — to drugs (“Crack Rock”) keep people apart. On the epic “Pyramids,” he juxtaposes images of black women as African queens and strippers, rolling lust, materialism, and race into one 10-minute jam. He’s sensual even at his most cerebral, reminding us that hardboiled rappers, sensitive indie strummers, and saccharine pop stars simply aren’t equipped to cover love as well as the best soul men.
4. Love Inspires Great Art
Pitchfork gave Channel Orange a 9.5, a rating that brings Ocean within a half a point of Nirvana’s Nevermind, the Beatles’ Abbey Road, the Clash’s London Calling, and Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, all of which receives perfect 10s. Other critics are sure to follow suit and lump on their own praises, and it’s easy to see why. On Channel, Ocean dials in a sound somewhere between Stevie Wonder’s funk-soul classicism and the Weeknd’s creepy avant-loverman experimentalism. Lyrically, no one can touch him, and that’s even if you resist the urge to go combing through his lines for homosexual references. As he explains on his Tumblr, he wrote to maintain his sanity and “create worlds that were rosier than mine.” As much as that failed first romance messed him up, it gave him a mess of great songs.
5. Love Is Powerful, Universal, and Worth Any Risk
Ocean didn’t need to tell us that his first love was a man, and by doing so, he put an awful lot on the line. As many have pointed out, the hip-hop and R&B communities haven’t always been particularly welcoming of gay people, and copping to a same-sex romance put him in a potentially awkward position vis-à-vis his allegedly homophobic homies in the L.A. rap crew Odd Future. Why did he do it? Maybe because his heart is still heavy — anyone who’s read his Tumblr can see that — and by opening up about these things, he brings himself closer to fans and heightens the power of his music. Knowing what we know, it’s impossible to hear Channel Orange without equating the talented guy behind the music with the brave guy behind the letter. In that sense, his gamble can’t fail.