The commercial and critical success of Frank Ocean is not just a testament to his talent but to how music fans and the industry at large have become more progressive in their thinking. Hooray to all parties involved. But as a firm believer in the Black Proverb, “It ain’t that deep,” I increasingly question whether criticism surrounding his work reflects a sincere impact of it or an overcompensation for the lack of artists like Ocean in the mainstream. This is not an insult to Ocean, whose talent is undeniable and whose symbolism is not easily swept under the rug. But it is worth asking: do his songs — especially those that directly engage his sexual identity, which has yet to come into full view — warrant such ample amounts of praise and, in the most extreme cases, deification?
Consider “Chanel,” the magnetic libation Ocean released in mid-March during his Beats 1 Radio show. Almost instantly, the Jarami-produced track was hailed as a “bisexual anthem” and christened “the most important song in the world right now.” Both sentiments were rooted in how Ocean begins the song, crooning over a canopy of piano keys: “My guy pretty like a girl and he got fight stories to tell.” This was not the first or the only time that Ocean has publicly addressed his sexuality. In July 2012, he shared on Tumblr that his first love was someone of the same gender.
Although Ocean has acknowledged same-sex attraction, he’s never taken on the labels gay, bisexual, or queer — if anything, he has purposely refuted them. Artists like Young M.A, Le1f, Syd the Kyd and iLoveMakonnen have been more forthright about how they identify, and in some cases, have been more detailed about it in their work. Yet, none of them seem to command the sort of critical and commercial acclaim Ocean does, and subsequently, not anywhere close to the praise.
So what was it about the opening of “Chanel” that made the song feel so vital?
Writing at The Undefeated, Austin Williams argued how “the boastful first few bars of Ocean’s new song might be the coldest, gayest, and most securely masculine flex in the history of rap.” There are LGBTQ rappers who would likely disagree with that assessment. Williams went on to declare that “the song’s lyrics read as a deliberate ode to duality and non-heteronormative binaries — an ambition, that since the death of Prince Rogers Nelson, is sorely missed in black music.”
“Ascribing such specific and pointed labels and meaning into the work of an artist who purposely submerges himself in ambiguity only achieves the opposite.”
Duality, sure, but Prince was someone who openly sang about the public questioning his sexuality as a result of how he presented himself aesthetically. Ocean does wear makeup in the video for “Nikes,” but what does singing about a pretty boy who can fight have to do with Prince? If we’re going by Prince and the androgyny metric, one could just as easily look back to Cee-Lo and André 3000 at their peak, or contemporary artists like Young Thug. You could also scroll through August Alsina’s Instagram where he sometimes draws style inspiration from the Street Fighter character Chun-Li and veteran pro-wrestler Koko B. Ware.
This mode of exaggerated praise was also bestowed upon the release of Ocean’s last album, 2016’s Blond. Headlines boasted of its “radical queerness,” argued that it “redefines pop queerness,” hailed it as a “queer masterpiece,” and praised the album for how it “asks us to see queerness as the new normal.” But these were all statements from white writers embellishing black sexuality. If the job of a critic is to find greater meaning and purpose in art, their job should also be one of clear sight and equanimity. Ascribing such specific and pointed labels and meaning into the work of an artist who purposely submerges himself in ambiguity only achieves the opposite.
Well-meaning or not, a handful of the glowing reviews surrounding Ocean are more indicative of a perception about black people’s relationship with sexuality and gender than what he’s actually offering fans.
In “A Lyrical Analysis of Queer Themes in Frank Ocean’s Music,” Chris Mench claims Ocean “infused his music with lyrics and themes addressing his sexuality — and the way in which it intersects with and complicates his racial identity as a black man — in ways both subtle and not-so-subtle.” The examples listed, however — references to songs like “Thinkin’ Bout You” and “U-N-I-T-Y” — don’t entirely speak to that complicated selfhood. For example, the piece notes how black people are more religious than the U.S. population. Yes, black people are more religious than most Americans, but they are also more likely to self-identify as LGBTQ than other groups. Mench’s argument contributes to the idea that Ocean is being exalted, in part, based on a false notion of what it means to be both black and LGBTQ — the idea that it is monstrously worse for us than it is for non-black queer people. The truth: there is a specificity to what black people who identify as LGBTQ come up against in our day-to-day lives, but specificity outlines the lives of all queer people across varied races and ethnic groups.
It can often feel as if there is a clamor for representation to the point where people are willing to magnify moments that are actually miniscule. All levels of progress should be celebrated, but within reason. And, in this instance, with the understanding that artists like Mykki Blanco, Young M.A, and Syd have spoken to queer realities with just as much clarity, if not more. It’s not about minimizing Ocean’s contributions; it’s about appreciating them for what they really are — snippets into a life that rejects rigid definition. It’s about understanding that he is still very much a person who lives in the gray, outside of bold categorization. Charles Pierce once wrote of the NBA’s Jason Collins, the first openly-gay pro-basketball player: “Let’s not make him more of a symbol than he wants to be.” We should allow Ocean the same respect. Anything else portrays a far more progressive reality than we actually live in. The Frank Ocean we have is more than good enough.