As fans watched in front of their flatscreens to see whether singer-songwriter Frank Ocean won a coveted Grammy Award on Sunday night — he did — the artist himself was probably thinking about how to get the particulars of his next work just right, writes Jeff Himmelman in the New York Times magazine.
In the wee hours of July 4 last year, several days before the release of “Channel Orange,” Ocean took to his Tumblr site — his main point of contact with his fans — and released a document that appeared to be the acknowledgments section of the liner notes for the forthcoming record. “4 summers ago, I met somebody,” he wrote. “I was 19 years old. He was too.” The two-paragraph message was a product of a sensitive mind and a still-broken heart. “By the time I realized I was in love, it was malignant. It was hopeless. There was no escaping, no negotiating with the feeling, no choice. It was my first love. It changed my life,” he wrote. “Imagine being thrown from a plane.”
The media took the message to be an outright profession of homosexuality, though Ocean has been reluctant to label himself. In an interview with GQ magazine last December, he said, “In black music, we’ve got so many leaps and bounds to make with acceptance and tolerance.” Many of the biggest figures in hip-hop, like Russell Simmons (the founder of Def Jam) and Jay-Z, voiced their support. Others, like the rapper 50 Cent, were supportive but suspected that there was more to the admission than the unburdening of a secret. “You can call it brave or you can call it marketing,” he told MTV, “because it was intentional. It wasn’t an accident.”
Whether Ocean intended the post in part as marketing or not, the media’s fascination with his sexuality drove an enormous amount of interest in him and his record. On “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” on July 9, Ocean performed a near-flawless rendition of “Bad Religion,” one of the most finely wrought songs on “Channel Orange” and one of the few that openly refers to love for another man. As the performance was shown on the East Coast, Def Jam released the album digitally through iTunes, a week in advance of the physical CD release. It sold 131,000 copies in its first week, enough to land at No. 2 on the Billboard charts.
Read Jeff Himmelman’s entire piece at the New York Times magazine.
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