What Frank Ocean is Trying to Tell the World with His Latest Drop
This week, on TOTEM Journal’s new music column, Vancouver/Montreal based music commentator Jordan Yeager takes us into a discovery behind Frank Ocean’s latest drop—Seeing Both Sides (Like Chanel), and go behind his mentality, his sexuality and what they mean to this 21st century creative genius that is so unique to what we know about music so far.
It’s no secret that the past year has been a mess politically. One of the few benefits of political unrest, though, is that it tends to inspire the best art. And because certain global leaders seem to be going to extreme lengths to promote social regression, artists today play a more important role than ever before; they have the power to inform a demographic that might be disillusioned by what they see in the mainstream media. The ‘60s had Bob Dylan, the ‘70s had Pink Floyd, and the 2010s have, amongst others, Frank Ocean.
Earlier this month, “RAF,” an A$AP Rocky track featuring Frank Ocean, dropped on an inconspicuous Monday morning. Such has been the trend for all of Ocean’s recent releases: there’s been no announcement, no build-up, and no real promotion. After all the hype leading up to the continuously-delayed release of his second studio album (and the subsequent rage following each delay), maybe there’s a reason for that – fans can’t be disappointed if they don’t know what they’re missing out on.
After entering the music scene in 2010 as a member of Odd Future, Ocean quickly gained a cult following with the releases of his first mixtape nostalgia, ULTRA and his first studio album Channel Orange in 2011 and 2012, respectively. And although Channel Orange was named HMV’s Album of the Year, Ocean’s songs have never been radio-friendly: he experiments with song structures, rarely working within the typical framework of verse-hook-chorus-verse. But experimentalism isn’t the only way Ocean challenges hip hop stereotypes. His lyrics are often raw and emotionally vulnerable, discussing personal relationships, social justice issues, and perhaps most importantly, his own experience as an openly bisexual man existing within the stereotypically homophobic hip hop community.
Frank Ocean is a lesson in duality. Who else could release a masterpiece like Channel Orange, dissipate into radio silence for four years, and then reappear with back-to-back instant classics like Blonde, “Slide,” “Chanel,” and “Lens” in hand? During the torturously lengthy hiatus between Channel Orange and Blonde, Ocean infamously hinted that his upcoming project wouldn’t be your run-of-the-mill album drop by teasing to Tumblr followers that he’s “got two versions,” leading many to wonder if he’d be dropping two albums. Ocean didn’t disappoint, releasing the abstract visual experience Endless days before gracing our ears (and souls) with Blonde.
In theory, Endless and Blonde make sense as being his “two versions” – they’re both experimental projects that play with different senses, one visual and the other audible. In reality, though, Endless has been watching from the sidelines while Blonde has become team captain. And while Apple Music, Spotify, and Google Play list the album as Blonde, the album artwork itself boasts the title Blond. After four years in production, you can bet this isn’t a careless typo; the masculine and feminine spellings of the word could hint at what Frank meant when he talked about having two versions. With bisexuality comes attraction to both genders, of course, but there also comes a sense of dichotomy, and the alternate titles Blond and Blonde are a blatant acknowledgment of the gender expectations that sexuality brings along with it.
To be bisexual within both the hip hop community and the public eye complicates matters further and invites even more scrutiny. Enter “Chanel.” While Blonde does play heavily with themes of duality, they live more subtly there; in “Chanel,” they’re lying cut open on the operating table, hearts still exposed and waiting to be examined.
Coming from someone notoriously private, “Chanel” reads like a diary entry, granting us a long-coveted peek into the private life of one of today’s most enigmatic artists. The song is a perceptible measure of how far Ocean has come since Channel Orange, both in regards to honing his musical direction and in discovering and accepting an aspect of himself that’s frequently misunderstood by the general public. While his lyricism in older works can tend towards heteronormativity, Ocean embraces the dual nature of his bisexuality on “Chanel” and the struggle – both internal and external – of challenging gender norms that comes with it. In this sense, the opening line means for itself: “My guy pretty like a girl, and he got fight stories to tell.” Internalized expectations of masculinity are harmful to everyone, but when you exist outside the confines of cis- and heteronormativity, they become outright dangerous.
Glimpses of Frank Ocean's "Boys Don't Cry" Magazine, featuring artists/photographers Dutch art photographer Viviane Sassen, illustrator Daniel David Freeman, Chinese Photographer Ren Hang and the legendary Wolfgang Tillmans alike.
“Chanel” is a ground-breaking track, and not just for Ocean’s musical career; bisexual representation is severely lacking in the media, and to introduce it within the often highly sexualized world of hip-hop was an admirable move.
Even within the LGBTQ+ community, bisexuality carries a stigma, and as a bisexual person, you can feel pressure to present yourself as “gay enough” while still maintaining the validity of your attraction to the opposite gender. As a bisexual female myself, seeing someone like Frank embrace his sexuality is inspiring, as it’s one that’s often misunderstood by straight and gay people alike. Bisexuality is easy to invalidate: when I’m in a relationship with a male, people assume I’m straight. And even when I was in a relationship with a female, people (including my then-girlfriend) assumed it was a phase and that I’d be enticed back into the heterosexual lifestyle sooner or later. The reality is that, for bi people, sexuality is fluid, and with tongue-in-cheek lines like “How you looking up to me and talking down?” and “Got one that’s straight acting, turns out like some dirty plastic (ride),” Ocean acknowledges both that fluidity and the conflicting pressure bisexual people can feel to choose a side, so to speak.
The fact that Ocean defies musical norms and bends genre borders is arguably what allows him to maintain his reclusive persona; fans are willing to put up with festival cancellations and a complete lack of tours if it means redefining what hip hop, R&B, and pop can mean. His work continues to impact the direction of hip hop as he leads the charge of contemporary artists trending away from blatant vulgarity and towards trends of social commentary, impactful lyrics, and overall more personalized, vulnerable content. While the world’s political landscape may be looking bleak, the world of music looks anything but.
Words by Jordan Yeager
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