Courtesy of the artist
Frank Ocean's raw, bleeding, diaristic storytelling guides Blonde.
Courtesy of the artist
Frank Ocean's raw, bleeding, diaristic storytelling guides Blonde.
Courtesy of the artist
Over the weekend we asked Ann Powers and Jason King to wrestle with Frank Ocean's long-awaited follow-up to 2012's Channel Orange. They did so across many time zones and man hours; what emerged is a conversation that stays fair-minded and grounded and ends in questioning both the artist and his audience. We find it impossible and personally limiting to consider this album outside of its context, so the below is as much a state of affairs as it is a straight-ahead review.
(Ann Powers and Jason King write about both the physical and digital versions of the album interchangeably. And without clarity regarding the whole listing vs. cover art spelling situation, we're calling it Blonde throughout.)
Ann Powers: When he began to put himself into the mind-frame that would inspire his new album Blonde, Frank Ocean imagined himself in a moving car. He was, in this waking dream, a girl. "Two years ago I found an image of a kid with her hands covering her face," the artist wrote in an essay posted on his Tumblr the day this weekend the album, four years in the making, finally became available." A seatbelt reached across her torso, riding up her neck and a mop of blonde hair stayed swept, for the moment, behind her ears. Her eyes seemed clear and calm but not blank, the road behind her seemed the same. I put myself in her seat then I played it all out in my head." Ocean imagined himself wriggling against the seatbelt, he wrote, playing with its tension until it no longer constrained him. This feeling of freedom within containment, of traveling at a high speed on a course that is smooth and open — and of being comfortable with motion even in your most vulnerable, childlike moods — was the one that best fed the creativity he needed to complete an album as highly anticipated as any to come out this year, even though, since he relocated from California to the clogged streets of London, Ocean doesn't even drive much any more.
Ocean is a car enthusiast in real life. When he lived in Los Angeles, he owned three BMWs and was rebuilding a fourth. He populates his artistic world with references to Ferraris and Bugattis, the way many rappers do, but also to Acuras and Camrys, conduits to solitude, pleasure and escape for more average folk. In "Nights," one of the 17 circuitous, absorbing tracks on the digital version of Blonde, the New Orleans-born Ocean remembers cruising in his family's Honda before Katrina forced him out of the city. "Kept at least six discs in the changer," he recalls, rhyming in a sing-song cadence over a woozy keyboard line. It's easy to imagine that CD changer containing the music that drifts and melds within the hard-to-define sound Ocean cultivates on Blonde: Stevie Wonder next to The Beatles next to Crescent City rappers and his mom's Hammond organ-driven gospel favorites. In other songs, Ocean locates erotic pleasure within car interiors, and safety "like an armored truck," and even rebirth, when he finds the feathers of a mythical phoenix on his dashboard. (It must have been a Pontiac.) But "Nights" places the sound of Blonde itself within that cocoon-like space, connecting it to a process of listening and absorbing hours of source material which, though it might be shared with one or two fellow riders, is ultimately private and introspective, the quiet side of taking the open road.
"The stillness is the move," goes the hook of a song by the Dirty Projectors, whose vocalist Amber Coffman is one of many guests from the cutting edges of various music scenes who appear on Blonde. The idea expressed in that phrase is fundamental to Ocean's musical approach, even more so now than in his earlier work that challenged received ideas of both R&B and indie pop. The rhythms on Blonde are cool, languid and minimal. Guitar and keyboard lines swell and brush against each other, rarely coalescing into hooks or stirring choruses. Some tracks are as dense as they are short, while others segment and land in structures that don't conform to traditional songcraft at all. The stories he tells within these prismatic songs, many explicitly erotic, gain their power from the music's tonal shifts and hard to track reference points. The lyrics only half-tell them, though, and only in deep dialogue with music that carries the listener deeper into reflection.
Introversion defines Ocean's stance throughout Blonde, even when he's reaching out to a lover; those lovers are often merely shadows on the passenger seat anyway. One reason his music captures so many people's imaginations now is that it's supremely ruminative, dedicated to exploring how memories drift, dissolve, reassemble themselves to form the narratives that inwardly define us, and how desire arises within a story each person tells herself as she reaches toward another. "Dreaming a thought that could dream about a thought that could think of the dreamer in the thought," Ocean rhymes in "Seigfried," imagining God at the end of that particular road, but not the lover for whom he longs. A guitar loop forms a membrane around the image, expanding it infinitely. When, moments later, he murmurs, "I'd do anything for you" to the object of his longing, the feeling is peaceful, infusing heartache with mindfulness. This is what Ocean offers that listeners crave — an antidote to the industrious and cynical persona building that dominates so much of popular culture now; a focus on process that feels so foreign to many listeners that they consider it a mystery. It's not a mystery. It's an articulation of what happens when each of us keeps her thoughts to herself.
Advisory: This video contains nudity.
Jason King: So Blonde is the album that was formerly going to be known as Boys Don't Cry (which has now become the name of a one-off 360-page magazine associated with the physical release of the album that you could, briefly, pick up in four pop-ups, newsstands and a bookstore, in LA, New York, Evanston, Ill. and London). The original album title would have been especially fitting this week, as it so eerily resonates with the arresting photograph and accompanying video of 5-year-old Omran Daqneesh, the baby from Aleppo who sat drenched in blood and dust and stunned into silence after rescue workers removed him from post-airstrike rubble and propped him up in an emergency vehicle. Part of the reason that image has circulated so widely as a profound commentary on the horrors of the Syrian conflict is that Omran doesn't cry in the face of such catastrophe; instead, he looks like the oldest of old souls, and we find ourselves watching him work through unimaginable trauma in real-time. Indeed, we're watching him while his life is splitting in two and tearing apart; if he's frazzled, or discombobulated, Omran is bravely keeping it inside, or he has no expression for what he's feeling. Boys don't cry, in part, because men refuse to cry: the toxic masculinity and weaponized lack of empathy that underwrite so many of our most pressing contemporary geopolitical conflicts are just two of the elements that have helped foment the incredibly tragic situation that Omran finds himself in.
And so it's fitting, given the times in which we live, that Frank Ocean has made a deeply empathetic and passionate album that's partly about his own ongoing struggle with masculinity and emotionalism. Quilted from fragmented ideas, observations and submerged memories around the vicissitudes of heartbreak and loss, Ocean manages to process his relation to that personal trauma for us in the most intimate and fragile of ways. We're listening to him work through some deeply personal moments, even if we don't always know what the referents for those moments are. I can't help but note that some of the most potent recordings this year made by black men — such as The Life of Pablo by Kanye West and Chance the Rapper's mixtape Coloring Book — wade deeply, and even self-consciously, into impressionistic emotionalism and into gospel-influenced questions of existence. And they offer us existential musings at a crucial time, when far too many people still can't seem to figure out whether black lives matter enough to change their own.
And yet nothing is ever so straight-ahead or open-faced with Ocean. His music, like his career as a whole, more often than not revolves around ambiguities and offhand non sequiturs. Apple Music lists the digital version as Blonde, as does the magazine page that serves as the physical's gatefold, but the cover art reads Blond. Here, as on previous efforts, Ocean seems profoundly interested in identities that, for any number of reasons, have become torn apart (his own and those of the other characters he observes, too). He's obsessed with people whose lives are split between past and present realities, people who move erotically between men and women, between warring ideals of masculine and feminine, and black and white, and gay and straight. This weekend alone, he released one audiovisual work and two different versions of the same album, and, though the two versions are not radically different from each other (there are five more tracks on the digital than the physical, but the physical includes two that aren't on the digital), I think he wants us to know he goes both ways in all aspects of life. At the very least, he doesn't subscribe to the idea of one thing or the other.
To be fair, I'm also of two minds about Blonde: musically and sonically, it's certainly consistent with today's conceptually-artsy hip-hop and R&B-influenced pop, including Rihanna's ANTI and Beyoncé's Lemonade, as well James Blake's The Colour in Anything and maybe even Banks' forthcoming The Altar. But critics' gleeful celebration these days of anything that registers as experimental "avant-soul" — if that term ever even really suits the music — usually neglects to mention intrinsic flaws such as drifty songwriting that is too often formless and the pursuit of tone that is too often samey. It's hard to be definitive about these critiques with Ocean's newest releases. Taken together, Endless and Blonde were designed to flood the commercial marketplace in the late summer, and they've done so in a way that means — at least for journalists tasked with covering the musical and pop cultural moment — there's really just too much complex music to digest well in such a compressed time. Both records could gain in their power and resonance as we have a chance to really dig in a bit more; or their flaws may appear more pronounced in the absence of hype and four long years of expectation and anticipation.
Ann Powers: Though Ocean is often romanticized as a mysterious figure and his music cast as avant-garde, it's perhaps more informative to think of Blonde as his way of revisiting and, in so doing, recasting the canon of classic rock. He's been open about the influence of The Beatles, whose "Here, There, and Everywhere" he quotes in the song "White Ferrari," and The Beach Boys, whose Brian Wilson almost enlisted him as a collaborator last year (although Wilson has said that didn't work out because Ocean "wanted to do rap"). Wilson's influence is strong throughout Blonde, ringing through its lyrical melodies and ornate yet cleanly constructed arrangements. There's also something very Brian about the way Ocean always seems to stand alone within his compositions, even though his list of collaborators numbers in the dozens. Frequently dwelling over states of dislocation and loneliness, Ocean's songs touch a nerve similar to those that The Beach Boys' sad auteur captured. When Wilson, as an adult, was making Smile, he called his grandiose, innocent-sounding songs "a teenage symphony to God." Parts of Blonde are more psychedelic than even Wilson's more far-out efforts, exhibiting less craving for radio airplay. It could be called a teenage symphony to weed.
Frank Ocean's Blonde, styled on the physical album release as Blond... it's confusing.
Frank Ocean's Blonde, styled on the physical album release as Blond... it's confusing.
Yet Ocean's mind games never stray too far from his grounding in sensuality. This is something he shares with the Beatle I'd bet is his favorite, Paul McCartney, along with a wry sense of humor that shows itself in punny wordplay (boy, does Frank love homonym-ish pairings like "solo" and "so low" or "inhale and "in hell") and in colorful descriptions of street scenes and shady characters. Something essential in Ocean's songs celebrates the pleasure of music itself. It feels so good when he lets his voice loose on an arching chorus or croons his way through a well-modulated verse, exhibiting the same kind of tunefulness that got Macca labeled "the cute one." Ocean's cute bona fides are reinforced by other reference points: in the essence of Burt Bacharach that infuses his Beyoncé collaboration, "Pink + White," and the way he pays homage to Stevie Wonder paying homage to the easy-listening, hard-loving Carpenters in his attenuated but striking retake of "Close To You."
Wonder is a crucial figure within Ocean's realm of influence, another African-American emissary between musical genres whose experimentalism was tempered by a killer pop sense. With the inimitable run of joyfully mind-expanding albums that began with 1972's Music of My Mind, Wonder toppled the racist hierarchies that placed the efforts of white musicians like Wilson and The Beatles above those by the African-American "entertainers" whose innovations had, in fact, provided the basis for all of rock. On his last album, Channel Orange, Ocean made the Wonder connections obvious, whereas here they're more confined as he explores other palettes, including a host of guitar effects inspired by British bands like U2. (Brian Eno, who pioneered the "infinite guitar" sound frequently invoked on Blonde, is listed in the album's credits, though whether he worked on the recording or was merely sampled is unclear.) But Ocean continues to aim for that spirit of effortless artiness, and of experimentation grounded in pleasure and the pursuit of beauty, at the heart of Wonder's work.
Pleasure is one of Ocean's main preoccupations. One way to listen to Blonde is as an album about sex: from the droll reference to masturbation that begins "Solo," to the lascivious come-ons of "Self Control" to the blatant descriptions that still come off as romantic in "Skyline To," Ocean embraces carnality as a treasure, sometimes frustrating because of its elusiveness but always worth pursuing. The frankness Ocean embraces is, of course, a central element of much American popular music and has been since the women who made the blues popular in the early 20th century spoke openly of the power, heat and sorrow in their own hips. In some ways, pop today is more explicit than ever; hip-hop has considerably furthered the artistry of the off-color metaphor, and R&B's bedroom jams celebrate sexual satisfaction in no uncertain terms. (Rock has actually grown more prudish in recent years, tending toward a sort of chaste earnestness or the high school-level jokes of the Warped Tour.) Ocean connects with those histories in his work. Yet throughout Blonde, he tells stories of sexual connection and disconnection that take on a different character than is often evident in current pop. His very matter-of-factness strips away the posturing that demands sexuality be a public performance and reinstates a believable sense of intimacy. That Ocean's own sexuality is, as he describes it, "dynamic" — a quality he shares with many millennials and teens, who increasingly reject binary terms to describe both gender and desire — makes Blonde radical, not because he is anywhere near alone, but because he calmly insists that the listener embrace his view of pleasure as unexceptional, healthy, canonical.
Jason King: Ann, although intimacy and interiority are clearly part of what's compelling about Frank Ocean in 2016, he's also defined by a profound exteriority — his trickster-like fondness for showbiz hype. There aren't that many musicians left in 2016 who can conjure up Event Pop: in the '80s, Michael Jackson turned every album release into a full-fledged cultural happening; and more recently, entertainers like Beyoncé and Kanye West (and Radiohead, to a lesser degree) have carried the gloved one's baton with aplomb. Ocean's palette of tools, like enigma, teasing, misdirection and outright silence, may have ultimately managed to turn Blonde and Endless into cultural phenomena rather than just product.
Even in the streaming music era, in which increasingly fewer listeners have any real need to digest albums as integral wholes, Ocean remains that rare musician who has never not been an album artist. It's not just that he clearly knows how to put out albums with maximum fanfare, it's that he knows how to make art with a capital A, aided and abetted by a tightly-curated VIP list of collaborators on Blonde that includes Andre 3000, Tyler the Creator, Pharrell Williams and Endless' Jonny Greenwood. Plus, the twisted, lo-fi images of the music video for "Nikes" (directed by Tyrone Lebon) remind us that Ocean's music can never be fully extracted from the visuals (his lyrics are already themselves cinematic). If Ocean weren't making music, he'd probably be raking in bucks at an ad agency.
On Blonde, Ocean continues to make music that's an artistic distillation of Lexapro-era tristesse; he's got that in common with failure-obsessed millennial peers, everyone from album collaborator James Blake to Lena Dunham to The Weeknd. And even more than Channel Orange, Blonde — equal parts psychedelic indie rock, post-IDM electronica, post-U2/Coldplay-esque Eno-pop, post-Drake hip-hop, and post-Maxwell drifty soul/R&B —becomes an impressive showcase for Frank Ocean the creative producer. Those experimental, druggy sonics abound, showing up in the fried vocals and pitch-shifting on "Nikes" to the ambient whistles in "Solo" to the Rotary-Connection-like delayed vocals on "Pretty Sweet" to the scraping, backwards effects on "Seigfried."
Blonde's raw, bleeding, diaristic storytelling somehow makes me think about Sinead O'Connor, whose 1990 album I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got was one of the first to seamlessly merge R&B, pop, rock and sampled hip-hop beats, in the context of confessional, warts-and-all lyrics about relationships lost and existential interiority. I'd argue that more than 25 years later, Blonde takes root in the world Sinead made possible: its best songs are troubled relationship tunes that feel like ripped pages in a worn diary, and they're often dark, moody and dream-like sinister, like the work of David Lynch or Frank Miller. On "Ivy," Ocean writes breathlessly poetic lyrics: "I thought that I was dreaming when you said you love me / It started from nothing / I had no chance to prepare / I couldn't see you coming." And on tuneful "Solo" he eloquently writes of "A bull and a matador dueling in heaven / It's hell on Earth and the city's on fire / Inhale, inhale, that's heaven."
Blonde also owes some debt to Meshell Ndegeocello, whose underappreciated 2000s albums like Cookie, Comfort Woman and Devil's Halo directly laid ground for the eccentric fusion of experimental soul, pop, R&B, rock and hip-hop we hear on Blonde. Like Ocean, Ndegeocello is black and queer, and raps and sings, and has always had an interest in alternative imaginings of masculinity in the context of either/or identities (the title of her outré 2007 album The World Has Made Me the Man of Our Dreams says it all). But bassist Meshell is known as a musician's musician with technical chops, whereas Ocean comes by much of his conventional musicianship externally, via collaborators (when, as Ann mentioned, on "Close to You," he reworks Stevie Wonder vocoder samples and on "White Ferrari," as he interpolates The Beatles; on "Seigfried," where he draws liberally on an Elliot Smith melody).
You've noted that Ocean's songs come to us as fragments and ideas that challenge the conventions of pop and R&B, and yet he seems to have strayed very far from the tight slickness of songs like "Novocaine" on Nostalgia, Ultra. I'm not sure whether that's a step forward or backward. Certainly, anyone looking for Frank Ocean the strategic songsmith who once crafted a melodic nugget like "I Miss You" for Queen B might find far too much of Blonde meandering or unhemmed. The challenge for me is less about songwriting, and more about the deliberate lack of groove that comes as a result of Blonde's neglect of drums or basslines on songs like "Skyline To." To draw on that car metaphor, I want Blonde's engine to rev up more often than it does, and I'm occasionally disappointed when it doesn't.
Ann Powers: Jason, you address crucial issues that are so often overlooked, especially today, when the symbolic gestures of identity and power that our pop stars enact are mistaken for actual heroism. Ocean has the potential to influence people's views on love, sex, race and identity, and maybe the most open-hearted elements of Blonde will do so. Or, in the mainstream, he could just be another transient sensation. The helium atmosphere of sudden album releases and other highly engaging pseudo-events makes it hard to know how this album's impact will translate over time. Like a sullen millennial taking his most important college admissions test, Ocean answered years of hanging in the background with a weekend of high-profile overachieving. Music fans and the media were stunned to attention, as you've noted, by fancy graphics and a poem about McDonald's by Kanye West, confusing streaming options and the lines at those pop-ups. Will we still be listening to Blonde when the fall leaves turn? Only time will reveal its place in pop history. That lineage itself is changing; no longer do artifacts like albums occupy its center.
When an album does make a noticeable impact today, it's because a community coalesces around it. That's what happened with Lemonade, another collection of first-person songs that employed visuals to amplify its meanings and capture a larger audience than it likely would have as a mere musical release. Calling on a history book's worth of African-American women's expressive culture, Beyoncé's very personal (or, at least, strategically confessional) account of a rocky period in a marriage was embraced as a monumental act of making lives visible and audible. "Lemonade is Beyoncé's intimate look into the multigenerational making and magic of black womanhood," wrote Zandria F. Robinson in Rolling Stone. The superstar's ability to connect her "I" with that "we" made not just a hit, but history.
Ocean does not seem inclined to reach out in this way. His own visual album, as I said in our previous discussion of Endless, felt more like a process-oriented conceptual art piece. And you're right about the songs on Blonde sparsely containing the elements that usually unite people behind a pop offering — most notably memorable beats. If the people can't dance, will anyone be part of your revolution?
Maybe Ocean doesn't really care. If the most prominent voices besides his own on Blonde indicate anything, it's that he's chosen a peer group only marginally interested in cultivating renown. Andre 3000, a legendary rapper who's repeatedly rejected the spotlight, claims the central cameo. Kendrick Lamar, whose recent success does demonstrate a strong sense of mission connected to fame, is present on one track, but mostly as a sound-effects generator. Ocean also relegates Beyoncé to background status in the last few bars of "Pink + White." It takes some chutzpah to put the Queen in that position.
A more telling partnership is the one Ocean shares on "White Ferrari" with Justin Vernon of Bon Iver and James Blake, his bros in Auto-Tuned anguish. Beyond the lyrical references to both tripping and getting naked, which are very Frank, the track could have been made by any of those three beloved artistes. Here's where Ocean lives most comfortably right now, it seems: in the middle ground between high art and the arena, where a sympathetic audience will be patient with his musical wandering and lyrical obfuscations.
Yet Ocean also still pledges fealty to the crew that first nurtured him, the hip-hop iconoclasts of Odd Future. The final track on Blonde is "Futura Free," a vocally distorted meditation on the tedium of success that concludes with a conversation, recorded long ago, with a couple of Ocean's old pals from that milieu. (One is his brother, the other, the skateboarder Sage Elsasser.) The voices, just kids' then, try to put a finger on their ambitions; nobody can really articulate what he wants. "How far is a light year?" someone asks. Ocean muddles this final question in noise. Is he ready to trace how far he's come? For now, he seems content to just share his view of the ride.
Jason King: Ocean's interest in the choreography of interpersonal relationships, and his poetic approach to missed opportunities for connection — people coming together, getting together, drifting apart — is certainly part of the melancholic beauty of his music. He paints erotic desire in complex hues and colors when so many of his musical peers are still using Crayolas.
We all know that in 2012, Ocean came out of the closet by refuting a cut-and-dry interpretation of his sexuality (and his lyrics), causing a seismic ripple in the default heteronormativity of hip-hop and R&B. In retrospect, he helped spawn the post-closet overground, creating space for the likes of queer, queer-identified and queer-allied artists ranging from Azealia Banks to Sam Smith and, yes, even Macklemore. Ann, as you note, Ocean has always approached sexual preference as fluid and dynamic, and he's mostly performed being queer more as a casual, implicit reality than some sort of external public achievement.
"Good Guy" is a sketch of a song that appears to be the only explicit lyrical mention of same gender desire on Blonde. And even still, the narrative is broken in two: the first half is about a failed date at a gay bar, the second half is a conversation between two guys complaining about "not having b****** no more." Other songs (like "Self Control," "Ivy" and "Nights") and sections of songs that deal with troubled love affairs specify no clear gender; they could go either way. Perhaps much of the album is about failed same-sex love; perhaps it is not. (We also don't really know yet to whom or what "Seigfried" refers). Other songs like "Nikes" make very specific reference to women ("these b****** want Nikes / they looking for a check"). While the promotion of sexual fluidity is rooted in allowing people to define sexuality away from conventions and binaries — though increasing research is demonstrating that sexuality is not quite as fluid a spectrum as Kinsey once argued — Ocean's circumscribed discussions of explicit same sex desire could be frustrating, rather than liberating, for many within and outside of LGBTQ communities.
In this light, Ann, Ocean's car motifs continue to fascinate, but I can't help also think that they are his main performative connection to a highly conventional symbol of machismo (which he, to his credit, acknowledges in his magazine when he says it might be linked to a "deep, subconscious straight boy fantasy"). This is to say nothing of his continued evocation of drug-use, his lyrical use of invectives like "n****" and "b******" and not-uncommon mention of the word "p****" — all of which cosmologically connects him more closely to the PMRC sticker hip-hop tradition than to a sensual, retro R&B one.
I've written before that one of the reasons Ocean found widespread acceptance where other queer R&B and pop artists have failed — beyond his evocation of rock tropes like the guitar and his tales of straight women in strip clubs — is because there's a total absence of camp in his work. Moreover, in a song like "Nikes," he shouts-out felled influences like A$AP Yams and Pimp C (rest in peace) and even Trayvon Martin — but there's no similar mention of slain LGB and trans folk (his emotional outpouring on Tumblr following the Orlando mass shooting doesn't explicitly show up in his Blonde lyrics). I say this not to police what Frank Ocean can or should say, nor how he should say it — only to mention there is a long venerable tradition where queer artists (in or out of the closet) engage in pre-emptive heteronormativity in the effort to avoid stigma and to fully crossover to straight audiences. It would be terribly tragic if Ocean's minimal attention to these matters in his lyrics happened to follow suit in that tradition.
I've recently been considering the idea that Napster helped create the reluctant pop star: so many musicians after 1999, in the absence of traditional record sales, found other ways to earn or bolster incomes, and found more stable lives to live. You see the evolution of the reluctant pop star today in the form of actor Donald Glover or golfer Justin Timberlake, where pop stardom is something you do on the side while you're doing everything else. You also see it in the form of Sia or Zayn, where being a pop star (beyond making pop music) is simply a burden to be dealt with, or a way of life that you shuttle off to the corner, like the act of moving a mound of wasabi away from your sushi.
Ocean seems to me the epitome of this millenia's reluctant pop star — he's a shrinking violet who went mostly invisible for the last four years; he rarely shows up to public events; and while he obviously knows how to write a solid radio-friendly pop song, he's become largely absorbed by other aesthetic pursuits. But the concept of the reluctant pop star has also merged into the concept of the silent pop star — that reclusive artist who rarely, if ever, does interviews, has highly controlled outgoing communications and practices withholding information from the public and press as a matter of course. Caginess and silence also happen to be the strategies of those of who know, or have known, something about living in closets.
In that sense, it's a bit of letdown that other than that off-the-cuff mention of Trayvon Martin in "Nikes" ("RIP Trayvon, that n**** look just like me"), nothing on Blonde speaks explicitly to the #blacklivesmatter movement (though one could generously look the album as a whole as impressionistically arguing for the importance of black life). Nothing on Blonde addresses the extreme crisis that is happening right now in black LGBT communities where the CDC has found that one out of every two black men who has sex with men is projected to become infected with HIV. This crisis is not just limited to the U.S.: it connects with the devastating criminalization of homosexuality in African nations like Nigeria and Uganda and European countries like Russia, and to the unacceptable persecution and brutalization of LGBT communities by terrorist groups like ISIS.
To be clear, I'm not making an argument that Ocean doesn't think about such things or that his heart doesn't bleed like everyone else's. It's also perfectly OK to not be a spokesperson or a role model or an activist, especially as pop and politics do not always make comfortable bedfellows. It's OK, and even progressive in some ways, to pursue a more sophisticated vision/version of what it means to be "out" than the rigid binary model currently embraced by global pride movements. And yet, given that he's released an album that's so raw, stripped-down and intimate, and believing as of course I do that Frank Ocean does indeed cry over the real time, existential threats that surely inform his everyday life as a not-completely-straight black American man making mainstream pop music given his considerable platform in 2016, I have to ask where, years after hauntingly evocative tracks like "Bad Religion," is his will and courage — and maybe even his skill — to bring those life-and-death, topical concerns into his recordings? Or does his crossover super-ambition — as James Baldwin might put it, the price of the ticket — make the act of doing so simply out of his reach?