(The Root) — "I never heard you so much as mention this cat's name before last week," my boyfriend interrupted as I heaped piles and piles of Frank Ocean praise and not more potatoes onto his dinner plate. Offended, I paused midsentence — "And you know what else about 'Bad Religion' " — wait, was I a bandwagon hopper? And if so, was there something wrong with that?
Last week I wrote about the rumors swirling around Ocean's sexuality — sparked by lyrical allusions to unrequited love and a "him" on the singer's new album, Channel Orange — in a column about whether or not black celebrities should feel a stronger responsibility to make their sexuality a political statement. The next day, Ocean published this on his personal blog:
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. Sleep I would often share with him. By the time I realized I was in love, it was malignant. It was hopeless.
In a fearless open letter that read like a page from his diary and not a PR statement, Ocean laid all his burdens down for the rest of the world to dissect as it pleased. For his part, Ocean had done his job. He had nothing more to say on the matter. But he didn't need to. If you write it, they will come.
"After reading his letter, I know that I felt more connected to his music," said my friend, poet and mental-health advocate Bassey Ikpi. "I was always a fan, but rather than just thinking he somehow knew how to interpret my angst and longing because he was a good writer, I realized that he was able to do all of that because he felt it, too."
As journalist Dream Hampton wrote on Jay-Z's Life + Times website, Ocean is not an "activist"; he's a kid who got his heart broken. Like so many other kids. And perhaps that's why so many of us former kids are so smitten with him now. In revealing what marked him as different, the singer became almost instantly universal, where before he was underground.
Earlier this month, I was only vaguely familiar with Ocean. "That kid who kills it on 'Made in America'?" was as much of his discography as I could confirm. Maybe he was related to Billy in some way? Not until I researched "gay," "rumors" and "black" did Ocean's name pop up again. Reviews in the United Kingdom of Channel Orange frequently mentioned the singer's bold use of the male pronoun as the subject of a love song, and immediately U.S. media outlets jumped on the news.
My first real introduction to Ocean came amid rumor and innuendo. Once he squashed it all, I decided to really hear what this 24-year-old had to say.
So I listened to "Novacane," the first single from his 2011 mixtape, Nostalgia, Ultra, as a novice and thought, "OK, cool." Next up was the deceptively low-key "We All Try," on which Ocean sings, "I believe that marriage isn't between a man and woman but between love and love."
Then a friend pointed me to YouTube and a bare-bones live performance by Ocean of the Beyoncé 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."