This article is written by Alana Brown-Davis. You can find her on Instagram.
The Open Letter
Let’s take a trip to 2012. The family pop duo LMFAO was everywhere with their EDM “swag” that found its way into college frat parties all over the nation. One Direction was making preteen and teenage girls faint from one hemisphere to the next. Justin Bieber was straddling the line between bubblegum pop golden boy and young adult troubadour, and Gotye dropped the melancholic hit “Somebody That I Used to Know” and disappeared.
Fifty Shades Darker was published in the spring and people went crazy. Michael Phelps won big at the Olympics, and the first black president of the United States was re-elected for a second term.
If I could match the summer of 2012 with a color I would pick orange. It’s not bright and loud like yellow, but warm and gratifying the way a mid-evening sunset is. Its luminescence is there and if you were around that year, you know the feeling I’m talking about. Frank Ocean used the color orange to commemorate the summer he fell in love with another man at nineteen years old. This was a product of a neurological condition he has called synesthesia in which the stimulation of one of the senses can trigger others. He wrote about this man in an eloquent letter he posted on his Tumblr page.
“Whoever you are.Wherever you are… I’m starting to think we’re a lot alike. Human beings spinning on blackness. All wanting to be seen, touched, heard, paid attention to…” he begins, introducing the recurring motif throughout the letter and the album that essentially what all of us want is to live freely and without restrictions.
“In the last year or 3, I’ve screamed at my creator, screamed at clouds in the sky for some explanation. Mercy maybe. For peace of mind to rain like manna somehow. 4 summers ago, I met somebody. I was 19 years old. He was too. We spent that summer, and the summer after, together. Everyday almost. And on the days we were together, time would glide. Most of the day I’d see him, and his smile. I’d hear his conversation and his silence… until it was time to sleep. Sleep I would often share with him. By the time I realized it was malignant. It was hopeless. There was no escaping, no negotiating with the feeling.”
This letter was posted six days before Channel Orange was released, on Independence Day. I wonder if he did that on purpose as a way to symbolize the freedom he had begun to claim and as a way to share the tenderest parts of himself with us. His liberation had the potential to be liberating for others who shared his story. When asked if he felt like the letter was courageous in an interview with The Guardian, Ocean replied “ I don’t know. A lot of people have said that since the news came out. I suppose a percentage of that act was altruism. Because I was thinking of how I wished at thirteen or fourteen, there was somebody I looked up to who would’ve said something like that. Who would’ve been transparent in that way. But there’s another side of it that’s just about my sanity and my ability to feel like I’m living life where I’m not just accessible on paper but sure that I’m happy when I wake up in the morning and not with this freaking boulder on my chest.” As the British rapper Speech Debelle beautifully put it, “Frank Ocean didn’t come out. He just let us in.”
Frank’s revelation was an unprecedented moment in hip-hop history. The hip-hop realm was not and continues not to be the most inclusive of queer people. The attitudes toward gay people in hip-hop have had somewhat of an ebb and flow effect. Let’s take Lil Nas X. When Lil Nas X came out as gay at the end of Pride Month in 2019, the uproar was astonishing, but not surprising. The same people who once sang the lyrics to his hit song “Old Town Road” were now making homophobic analyses of its actual meaning. Last year, when Lil Nas X kissed one of his dancers during his BET Awards performance of “Montero (Call Me By Your Name),” it was the most discussed topic on Twitter with many calling the moment “repulsive” and “disgusting.” I’m unsure of what the response to Ocean’s coming out was like in 2012 because I didn’t know of him at the time. I don’t know if it was as brutal of an experience as Lil Nas X went through or if the climate had changed much in the years between 2012 and 2019. What I am certain of is that for them to live at an intersection of identities (young, queer, and black) and to add the title of celebrity to that hasn’t been easy. Perhaps this is why Frank Ocean has become more reclusive over the years, as a way to protect not only his privacy but his soul as well.
In listening to Channel Orange and its precursor Nostalgia, Ultra, you can easily find similarities between his thoughts in this letter and the ones he sings to us. The framework of Channel Orange is centered around Frank flipping the channel between his memories, giving us snapshots of the world through his eyes. On the opening skit “Start,” Frank begins the album with the sound of analog television and PlayStation being turned on. This television motif replays itself throughout Channel Orange as we watch the different “episodes” of life that Ocean documents.
His observations of the world are that of a brilliant novelist–wistful, vivid, and emotive. If I could teach a college course on how music and literature intertwine in ways we don’t usually notice, I’d start with this album. It’s rich with a special quality that needs to be dissected and studied. If it’s not obvious in his pop culture references you will notice it in the mystic imagery that weaves its way throughout the album. So often in the album, he floats between avant-garde R&B singer and alt-rap wordsmith conveying something completely different with each form of narration he uses.
A prime example would be “Pyramids,” perhaps the album’s most evocative and experimental song. In the song, he uses the rise and eventual demise of the Egyptian queen Cleopatra as a metaphor for the plight of the modern-day black woman. The idea of a pyramid acts as two entities in the song. In the first part, the pyramids are majestic structures revered by the kingdom and envied by outsiders, just as Cleopatra is. The powers of both the queen and the pyramids are unheard of and therefore problematic to those who don’t understand, nor respect them. The second half of the song is where Cleopatra’s current state is viewed. The pyramid has now gone from a place of royalty to a midnight strip club. Cleopatra has been reduced to a woman who is degraded and used for sexual pleasure by pimps, a sad story concluded with a guitar solo by John Mayer.
In songs like “Sweet Life” and “Super Rich Kids,” Ocean explores concepts of materialism and wealth through the eyes of the young black upper middle class. He speaks directly to people who reside in “domesticated paradises” environments that look promising to most but in actuality are superficial. He challenges the well-known idea of money and luxury being synonymous with happiness while also empathizing with the young elite’s inability to imagine another way of living. As he says in the chorus of “Sweet Life,” “Why see the world when you got the beach?” “Super Rich Kids” describes a typical day in the lives of a few LA teens whose privileged livelihood warrants them the freedom to cause chaos. Ocean enlists Odd Future affiliate Earl Sweatshirt to help him describe the bubble they live in daily. When we look closely, we see that this behavior is a product of loneliness and isolation.
In the album’s lead single “Thinkin Bout You,” Frank Ocean’s love language operates as a passive way of “shooting your shot.” “A tornado flew around my room before you came, excuse the mess it made, it usually doesn’t rain in Southern California, much like Arizona, my eyes don’t shed tears but boy they pour when I’m thinking bout you.” In the opening verse, he explains to his lover that his life is a mess, and although he doesn’t cry often, he does when he’s thinking of him. The verse also alludes to Hurricane Katrina (the tornado) displacing him and his family and forcing them to move from New Orleans to Southern California for shelter which occurred before he met the man he spoke of in his Tumblr letter. Songs like “Sierra Leone” display a less rom-com-like version of young love. In this song, Ocean portrays a young man who gets a girl pregnant. In this two-minute coming-of-age story, we get to see the character mature from an irresponsible teenager into a loving father
Early on in his career, music connoisseurs and journalists alike, compared Ocean’s style to that of Marvin Gaye’s. Frank’s music during this era does retain the spirit and tenderness of many songs in Gaye’s catalog. His ability to articulate painful experiences through fictional characters mirrors the agony Gaye conveys through the lens of a Vietnam War veteran who returns home in a state of disillusionment. Two songs that come to mind are “Crack Rock,” track nine on Channel Orange, and “Novacane,” the lead single off of his debut mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra. In “Novacane,” we hear the tale of a woman he meets at a Coachella festival which pays her way through dental school by working in pornography. To get to know her better, he begins to engage in drug use as well, leading to a shared feeling of numbness that gets worse as the song builds. “Crack Rock” discusses a man in Arkansas battling drug addiction, a story inspired by that of his grandfather. “For a song like Crack Rock, my grandfather, who had struggled to be a father for my mum and my uncle … his second chance at fatherhood was me. In his early-20s, he had a host of problems with addiction and substance abuse. When I knew him, he was a mentor for the NA and the AA groups. I used to go to the meetings and hear these stories from the addicts – heroin and crack and alcohol. So stories like that influence a song like that.”
At the time of Channel Orange’s release, the R&B scene was going through an identity crisis. Critics proclaimed that “R&B is dead” when it was not. The 2000s brought with it a slew of classic hip-hop-R&B collaborations( i.e. Lloyd and Lil Wayne’s “You” or Fabolous and Tamia’s “Into You“) that blurred the lines between the two genres as the years progressed. Rap had become more commercialized which prompted better marketing. Towards the end of the decade, the advent of rap blogs helped lead hip-hop into its Internet era. R&B however did not have the same luck.
With this came a new generation of artists in the early 2010s whose music tested the boundaries of R&B, a movement spurred by Frank Ocean and The Weeknd. R&B has always been known for being intimate in ways both sonically and lyrically, but this generation added more layers to an already well-built structure. Soon after, Ocean dropped Nostalgia, Ultra, and The Weeknd released his heralded House of Balloons mixtape, the first entry in what would later be known as Trilogy. When their projects were released, no one knew exactly how to classify their music because its sonic palette shifted frequently. Their versions of R&B were more fluid in production, with many songs having indie rock, psychedelic, and electro influences. The context of their lyrics was saturated with tales of drug use, heartbreak, promiscuity, and greed, exploring the toxic side of romance in more depth.
Since Channel Orange, Frank Ocean has gone on to become one of the most prolific artists of this generation. The album garnered him four Grammy nominations, one of which he won for Best Urban Contemporary Album. His success as a musician has prompted him to explore other avenues of expression such as visual art and photography.
When you listen to alt-R&B giants of today like Steve Lacy, Ravyn Lenae, or Brent Faiyaz, you can hear the influence Ocean’s unconventional style has had. Ignoring the constraints that critics and labels put on him was the energy that fueled the idiosyncratic approach he has to his music. I think it’d be safe to say that he walked so that they could run. Not just as an artist but as a young queer black man utilizing mediums such as this to challenge the world and change it. The work he and his counterparts did in the early 2010s to usher in a new idea of what R&B could be shaped the genre into the wonder it is today.
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