Frank Ocean: On the Eve of Blond
With Frank Ocean’s third album set to hit the stores this week and available to stream in its entirety on selected sites, I’ve been pondering what makes the media speculation on Ocean’s coming-out story so unusual and – in some ways – so unpalatable to me. For there can be no doubt that Blond is his coming-out album: in its original incarnation it was to be titled Boys Don’t Cry, presumably in partial homage to Kimberley Peirce’s 1999 lesbian classic of the same name, and yet the new title and image is possibly even more gay. Featuring a shot of Ocean, now with shaved blonde-green hair, covering his face in what appears to be a shower or a bathhouse, it looks like an Instagram shot taken on the first night someone parties as an “out” gay man: reticent but proud, flamboyant but also cautious about flamboyance at the same time.
From the very outset, I have been careful to use that word “gay” and to avoid the word “queer,” just because Ocean’s coming-out seems to be very carefully phrased in terms of a classic closet epistemology structured around motifs of concealment, performance and open secrets. While that kind of experience undoubtedly caused agony for whole generations of homosexuals, the notion of the open secret also has a certain melancholy and mystical cache when it comes to art, and to music in particular, and in many ways both Nostalgia, Ultra and Channel Orange fit into a genealogy of homosexual music that I think of as mnemosexual: music in which the moment of personal consummation, the moment of coming-out, is always anterior, relegated to a moment when it could or should have happened.
True to that orientation, Ocean’s music doesn’t tend to anticipate, celebrate or reflect upon romantic ecstasy but rather focus upon communions and consummations that might have been – the “backward glances” and passing gazes that once formed such a big part of gay life, but have now been largely diverted into the more regimented and regulated gazes of apps like Grindr and Scruff. In part, the delicate eroticism of Ocean’s music – which is rarely overtly sexual, but nearly always poised on the precipice of some blissful romantic union – feels like a way of returning to that more erotic economy, with his penchant for medley-like structure betraying a cruisey restlessness and unwillingness to remain in one spot for too long.
In many ways, that kind of elusiveness is far more likely to garner media traction than more overt displays of sexuality, and so it’s no surprise that Ocean has become much more of a visible beacon for the LGBT community than, say, Mykki Blanco or Blood Orange. When you think about it, that’s a pretty unusual thing, since both Blanco and Devonte Hynes are “activists” in a much more overt and traditional sense than Orange. On the one hand, Blanco recently came out as HIV positive and has in fact articulated an interest into moving into investigative LBGT journalism if his HIV status prevents his music career advancing in the way he would want. On the other hand, Hynes has done an enormous amount to advance what might be described as the fluid bisexual community, as well as drawing attention to the plight of LGBT teens and young adults who find themselves homeless in New York.
By contrast, Ocean’s activism seems to consist of a studied inability or unwillingness to act, along with a profound reticence to announce anything about himself – a reticence that has become so pronounced in the last twelve months that many people questioned whether a follow-up to Channel Orange would ever hit the shelves. In many ways, his appearance at the very end of Kanye’s Life of Pablo debut show summed it up: a shadowy figure, living on the fringe of the hip-hop community, revered by everyone as somehow special, unique or emblematic of the community even or especially as he seemed unable to fully articulate that position himself. In an era in which it seems as if coming-out is a fairly standard activity for celebrities, Ocean seems trapped – or huddled – in something resembling a classical closet mentality.
To some extent, that can be explained by the notoriously homophobic nature of the hip-hop community itself, as well as the way in which it has been increasingly obscured or excused over the last decade in particular. While there’s no doubt that artists like Kanye, Vince Staples, Run the Jewels, Young Thug and ASAP Rocky all have provocative and privileged things to say about the current state of America, there can also be no doubt that the language they use to do so is often inextricably mired in misogynistic and homophobic assumptions. To take just one example, Killer Mike, from Run the Jewels, is frequently hailed as a visionary social activist, appearing regularly to pledge his support for Bernie Sanders – and socialism generally – as well as his concern for minority causes.
At the same time, however, both Run the Jewels albums are suffused with misogynistic and homophobic sentiment – and, what’s more, this sentiment isn’t somehow sequestered from the social protest stuff (as often occurred, say, on albums by early 90s art rap groups, and A Tribe Called Quest in particular) but is often the very vehicle through which social protest occurs. In that sense, Killer Mike often plays to me as the ultimate Bernie Bro, demanding equality for all but by way of a lexicon that makes it clear that men – and straight men – are still very much the arbiters of taste and power. In their own strange way, the Run the Jewels albums feels like mansplaining taken to its logical and perverse conclusion.
What makes this situation worse is that the mainstream musical media, in its effort to commune with hip-hop – and to venerate its more radically and socially progressive elements – tends to wash over or ignore the complexity engendered by this misogyny and homophobia, as if women and gay people were unfortunate but necessary collateral damage in the quest to achieve racial harmony in the United States. To take just one example, Pitchfork recently gave Joey Purp’s debut album iiiDrops a “Best New Music” rating, describing it as “boastful and thoughtful, socially aware and defiantly filthy.” This could describe any number of albums, but as the review proceeds it becomes clear that “defiantly filthy” simply means misogynistic and homophobic, with the review concluding that: “Unfortunately, his gaze does not extend to seeing women in whole; there’s nary a girl mentioned who isn’t a ho, a nag, or one or the other in the making. That’s a disappointing state of affairs, but there is hope: If you look into his daughter’s eyes, you can see the world. And when he looks in the mirror, he sees his mother’s eyes. He’s traumatized, but he’s still looking.”
In many ways, this final, cursory reference to the vicious misogyny of a technically brilliant album – and the album is brilliant – epitomizes the way in which any discussion of hip-hop tends to relegate any discussion of identity politics that exceed race to a footnote. Any number of things could be said about the argument on display here, but the most obvious is that Joey Purp’s veneration for his mother and daughter doesn’t in any way mitigate the hatred for women displayed by the album as a whole – if anything, it reiterates it, cementing it within a worldview endemic to both hip-hop and a variety of other masculinist musical genres in which women are only permitted subjectivity in the guise of mothers or daughters. Nurtured by a wonderful mother, blessed with a wonderful daughter, but condemned to traverse a city of whores, Joey Purp’s misogyny is fairly typical in both its sentimentality and selectivity, and can’t simply be explained away as part of some wide-eyed vicissitude of youth as the reviewer seems so keen to do here.
Now, my intention here isn’t to blast hip-hop or to suggest that hip-hop is necessarily more misogynistic or homophobic than other masculinist genres – it’s not – but to instead suggest that the peculiar converge of misogynistic and homophobic hip-hop and political liberalism over the last decade makes the position of a figure like Frank Ocean extremely difficult. Once upon a time, a gay artist might claim to own his sexuality from within a liberal framework, but given how thoroughly hip-hop has internalized liberalism – or exposed the straight male privilege at the heart of the liberal process – there’s a sense that any utterance of gay sexuality made by Ocean has been pre-empted and contained before it is even spoken.
In some ways, that situation is only enhanced by the fact that soul music is essentially Ocean’s vehicle of choice. In his discussion of Grace Jones in Post Cinematic Affect, Steven Shaviro draws upon Kodwo Eshun to posit Afrofuturist music as a riposte to the centrality of the soulful black voice in liberal concessions to African-American identity and autonomy, observing that, for Afrofuturists, “the soulful human singing voice – traditionally at the centre of Afrodiasporic music – is erased, decentred, or subjected to electronic distortion and modulation… In contrast to the mainstream Civil Rights movement, which demanded full recognition of the humanity of black people, Afrofuturists equate ‘the human’ per se with white supremacy, and with the normative subject positions of white, bourgeois society. Therefore they regard humanity, not as something to be attained, but in Nietzschean fashion as “something that must be overcome.””
For those reasons, there is something decidedly unpalatable about the way in which the very musical media that effectively venerates the misogyny and homophobia of “liberal” hip-hop also pays tribute to Ocean’s soulful efforts to regain full humanity within that community. If Ocean genuinely is some kind of liberal hero, then it doesn’t make sense to frame the community itself as liberal too, and it is that contradiction that tends to drive depictions of his “struggle” and “bravery” in the liberal music media, with publications like Pitchfork rushing to commend Ocean for attempting to articulate himself against a systemic misogyny and homophobia that they are invested in not actually acknowledging as fully existent.
In that sense, there is something about Ocean’s closet mentality – and closet epistemology – that calls the bluff of the contemporary hip-hop scene, since it may now – somewhat ironically – be easier to occupy the Afrofuturist, postqueer fringes of the scene – as in the case of both Blanco and Hynes – than to inhabit it from within as a more or less convenionally liberal gay subject. In an interview about his work on the production for Yeezus, Arca observed that while Kanye and his crew were fascinated by his postqueer soundscapes, there was still very much an unspoken sense in the studio that his actual sexual orientation – and preference for men – was something that had to remain closeted. Similarly, part of what makes figures like Blanco and Hynes ultimately so palatable is that the very queerness of their sonic selves tends to eclipse their actual sexual proclivities, which is perhaps why the hip-hop community reacted with such hostility to such a classically and conventionally gay topos as Blanco’s disclosure of his HIV status.
By contrast, Ocean is trying to do something both more and less radical than Blanco and Hynes – he is trying to inhabit the scene as a liberal gay man, or to migrate his liberalism into that supposedly promulgated by the scene as a whole. Where Blanco and Hynes seem determined to take blackness to its strangest and most radical extensions – often equating it with transsexuality, or postsexuality in the process – Ocean’s liberalism feels more like a late incarnation of passing for white, insofar as liberalism itself is always a white category and the move within hip-hop activism over the last decade has tended to be to converge black straight male and white straight male subjectivity while leaving feminine and queer identities more or less by the wayside, if only by relegating them to the impossibly and internally contradictory “soulful” humanism that is both embraced and imploded by Ocean.
It feels right, then, that both the working titles of Ocean’s latest release reference the processes and ambitions of passing for white. Apart from being a classic LGBT text, Boys Don’t Cry is also a meditation on Southern whiteness, and yet the trans sensibility of Peirce’s masterpiece would ultimately seem to closer to Hynes than to Ocean, which is perhaps one of the reasons why he eventually settled on the title Blond. Throughout the history of African-American music, blondness has often been used as a synonym for whiteness – and for passing for white – most notably during the New Jack Swing era of the early 90s, arguably the closest that African-American queer cultures came to cross over into and coming out within mainstream hip-hop communities.
In many ways, the front cover of Blonde feels like a relic of the New Jack scene, with the erasure of Ocean’s face underneath a peroxided buzzcut seeming to recall the kinds of bizarre post-human hairstyles that represented those artists’ contorted and parodic efforts to over-identify with the growing convergence of white and black heterosexual demographics in hip-hop culture in the late 80s and early 90s. Like so many New Jack artists, from Babyface to New Edition, to Jane Child, Ocean also presents himself as a perpetual adolescent, an emergent self that hasn’t quite learned how to come out as a liberal adult, let alone a gay liberal adult.
Yet just in case those New Jack overtones pushed him too far in the direction of a Blanco or Hynes, there is another, more direct reference in the title of Ocean’s new album. For 2016 is not just the third anniversary of Channel Orange, but the fiftieth anniversary of Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, a landmark that has been celebrated – among other things – by a tribute cover album that is as devoid of African-American voices as Dylan himself was influenced by them. Over the last couple of years, there’s been a move on the part of more liberal hip-hop artists to claim this singer-songwriter lineage – Kendrick’s “King Kunta”, in particular, feels directly indebted to Dylan’s nasal drawl and talk-speak, especially in its opening stanzas – and it is that heritage that Ocean appears to be drawing upon here as well.
While the album is yet to come, then, the buildup and iconography suggests a profound and perplexing question: how does your typical, liberal gay African-American come out in a world in which liberalism itself is used as a vehicle for misogynistic and homophobic sentiments? To some extent, director Justin Simien used his film Dear White People as a way of asking a similar question, posing the issue of how African-American realism looks in a world in which realism itself is already a position of white bourgeois supremacy. As with Ocean, Simien’s question is bound up with his own coming-out process and in both cases what we get is not so much the Afrofuturist departures of Blanco or Hynes but an Afropresentist determination to inhabit liberalism, realism and the soulful African-American voice with discomfort – and it is that sense of never quite departing and never quite inhabiting that makes these two very different artists so powerful in their closet epistemologies, estranging us from the contemporary hip-hop milieu from within, even as they refuse to offer any easy alternatives or answers.
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