The Impact of Frank Ocean’s Revelation

By sharing what made him different, the underground singer gained universal appeal.

C. Flanigan/FilmMagic/Getty Images
C. Flanigan/FilmMagic/Getty Images

Then a friend pointed me to YouTube and a bare-bones live performance by Ocean of the BeyoncĂ© hit he wrote, “I Miss You.” Sitting in front of a keyboard at the Bowery Ballroom in New York City, Ocean sang lyrics about longing and emptiness that reminded me immediately of Luther Vandross. Not the voice, but the trembling emotional vibrations underneath.

Yeah, Frank Ocean had me at “hello,” but not all of his old friends welcomed the arrival of new fans like me.

“I hate that he is getting more mainstream now that he came out. I know that sounds contrary, but I liked his underground persona. I like him because he wasn’t well-known,” said a friend who’s been an Ocean fan since Nostalgia, Ultra.

Holding on to Ocean like the last ball on the playground, she eventually conceded that his music “should be heard, and his coming out should be hailed.” Early adopters never get the certificate of perfect attendance they deserve, and somehow the rest of us, the tardy ones, reap the benefits.

“His letter was poignant, heartfelt and truthful. It was authentic like his music,” said this same friend when talking about the magnetic effect of Ocean’s coming out. Instead of polarizing his fan base, it drew folks like me to him — folks who have been listening to Channel Orange on repeat since it debuted on iTunes on July 10. With more than 100,000 copies sold, the album is likely to debut at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 chart next week.

“I could never make him love me,” Ocean sings on “Bad Religion,” the song about feeling alone in a non-relationship that first sparked the questions about his sexuality. Funny, listening to the track, one can hardly distinguish the anguish from the issue, or vice versa. Is he upset that he fell in love with a man or that he fell in love with someone who won’t love him back?

In the end, none of it really matters when your eyes are closed, eavesdropping on emotions that could easily be your own. And therein lies the strength of Ocean’s Channel Orange: You can choose to forget who he’s singing to or choose to unravel every allusion and turn of phrase. Either way, it’s good music.

Ikpi put it best when she described Channel Orange as something of a permission slip. A green light to go ahead and be entertained or to accelerate your understanding of what it means to be black, to be gay, to be hip-hop. 

“Beyond our gay or our bi or our straight, there is a visibility and humanity and permission to breathe and feel and be that he’s tapped into,” explained Ikpi. “That’s what’s going to resonate with people.”

Helena Andrews is a contributing editor at The Root and author of Bitch Is the New Black, a memoir in essays. Follow her on Twitter. 

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