Chilean novelist, poet, and essayist Roberto Bolaño once said of his writing that all he hoped for were “lines capable of grasping me by the hair and lifting me up when I’m at the end of my strength. Odes to the human and the divine.” Listening to Frank Ocean can often feel like that: songs and sentiments that are so awe-inspiring in their vulnerability they serve as odes to the ephemeral and the spiritual.
But Ocean’s gift for narrative extends beyond songwriting. As first evidenced in his open Tumblr letter from 2012, the singer has a penchant for the literary. In a review of Ocean’s recent releases, Endless and Blond, the New York Times mentioned how he had, in the fours years since Channel Orange’s debut, fashioned himself as “a screenplay writer” and “an essayist,” noting how his Tumblr posts in the wake of the Orlando shooting and Prince’s passing were “devastatingly felt.” Packaged within Ocean’s own zine, suitably titled Boys Don’t Cry, was a personal essay and a screenplay written by the singer. At one point, there was speculation that he was working on a novel.
All of which has us wondering: what does it really mean when we call Frank Ocean a “writer”? Here, four authors — Morgan Parker (Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up At Night; There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé ), Darnell Moore (No Ashes in the Fire), Danez Smith ([insert] boy; Black Movie), and Brit Bennett (The Mothers) — consider Ocean’s literary aesthetic.
Morgan Parker: As a writer who always wanted to be in a punk band, I revel in conversations about the blurred lines between mediums. I’ve been super excited by what I think of as “the rise of the narrative album,” a la Lemonade and good kid, m.a.a.d city. The album as journey, complete with all the rules of fiction: conflict, transformation, writing, and falling action. Because isn’t everything storytelling? Don’t we possess literacy for sound or images as we do music? What’s the difference between poetry and performance art; spoken word and rap; sculpting and composing? Frank Ocean the artist is in the footsteps of Glenn Ligon, Lorna Simpson, and Noah Purifoy. As a poet, his lineage includes Fred Moten, Terrance Hayes, and Jericho Brown. He tells stories with the tenderness of Gayl Jones, the complexity of Zadie Smith, and the straightforwardness of Alice Walker. Like any good writer, his is an art fueled by absorbing and observing.
Danez Smith: I don’t wanna offer Frank any special “literary” privilege without also extending it to other black songwriters. The line between lyrics and poetry is so thin it doesn’t exist, and as a writer it feels good to sit down with Frank or Kendrick or Jamila Woods or Badu and be immersed in some music where you know the song was banging even before it was lifted off the page into something sonic. For me, I’ve always come to Frank Ocean’s music firstly for the lyrics. From Nostalgia, Ultra on, Ocean has offered us words so damn plus and holy and silly — it’s undeniable that he is one of the best songwriters writing right now. When he compared the nana to Majin Boo on “Pink Matter,” I knew homie was really up to some shit. When I heard “Forrest Gump” I was finally at home in a mainstream record like my little black gay ass had never been before. On this new joint, I’m interested in when he chooses to assign a gendered pronoun to the love interest in his songs. While I haven’t caught any explicit male pronouns in the work, some of the more vulnerable tracks do have an absence of feminine pronouns that make me curious as to how Frank will continue to voice or not voice his sexuality (not that he has to at all).
I’m also curious to see what Frank can do in another medium. The letters he’s written have been great. Shit, it’s one of my favorite Tumblr pages to go to. Even when I don’t “like” a song of his, I still respect the work. The thoughts always feel complete, even if they are fragments or interludes. He writes with a poet’s eye, blends the colloquial with the fantastic with the gospel in almost masterful ways that create something lush. I’m excited to listen to him for a while and to see how he grows. I fear we may be giving him an idol status a tad too early. Don’t get me wrong, homie is tight, but he’s still young in his career. I hope that hunger never disappears, that he takes his time to be curious, to allow himself all the necessary failures on the way to making a masterpiece, and if he’s down, I’m sure someone would be happy to collect all dem lyrics and release a book of poems.
“He writes with a poet’s eye, blends the colloquial with the fantastic with the gospel in almost masterful ways that create something lush.” —Danez Smith
Brit Bennett: It’s hard for me to locate Frank historically, partly because of the expansiveness of the black literary tradition, partly because Frank’s music feels so present. I mean, there’s the obvious James Baldwin comparison, at least thematically, given a shared interest in black masculinity and sexuality. I could see a comparison between a book like Giovanni’s Room and Channel Orange for sure. But also that comparison is easy because they’re both queer black men, so it might be kind of boring. I’d definitely read a novel by Frank, though. He’s a compelling storyteller — in song and on the page — and I think his use of language is intimate and evocative.
He often uses these long lines — I’ve heard some listeners complain about this, how he crams so many words into a line — but I find it super interesting. His language sort of slithers — as soon as you try to grab the line, it flickers off into a new direction. I remember the first time I heard “Thinkin’ Bout You,” I was so fascinated by this; how each phrase builds and builds but I never knew where he was taking me. Like stream of consciousness almost. If we think of literature as interesting language presented in an interesting way, I think there’s definitely a literary quality to his writing. So much of popular music is only earthly — located solely in the present, physical body — but Frank's lyrics often soar through space and time in different ways. There’s a physicality to it, but his language almost seems to hover between earth and sky.
Darnell Moore: When I read the meditation Frank published on Tumblr written in response to the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando in June, I was struck by his clarity of voice. It’s midnight black like Amiri Baraka’s. The repetition and affect present in his lyrics and essays mirror the poetic and prophetic style of Black Arts Movement poets, from Baraka to Sonia Sanchez. His writings possess fire, truth, and beauty. And they don’t lie. He writes undressed, prescient, and unafraid poetry, which in form and content, almost brings to mind an early Nikki Giovanni poem.
While I am tempted to crunch Frank into the unyielding canon we’ve come to know as the black literary tradition, I am not sure it’s possible. Frank is an iconoclast. He gives the middle finger to convention, straight lines, and boxes. Too often, geniuses who craft the black word in forms more queer than straight — musical lyrics as opposed to a nonfiction essay, for example — exist outside of the gaze of the black literary establishment. But what about black words created in the commons, in the alleyways, in the music studio? Are the words of Nina Simone or Andre 3000 less critical to the sustenance of black literary culture than, say, James Baldwin? Frank is a poet, a black poet, for sure. But even that very good distinction might be too restrictive for someone who seems to abscond containers.