Frank Ocean's coming out generates a positive reaction

Posted: July 30, 2012

Shouldn't the first question be "Is Frank Ocean good?" rather than "Is Frank Ocean gay?"

Of course, it should, so let's start off by answering that query.

Frank Ocean, the 24-year-old R&B singer, songwriter, and producer who took the frequently homophobic hip-hop world by surprise July 4 by revealing on his Tumblr blog that his first love was a man, is very good.

When he played a sold-out show at Union Transfer in Philadelphia on Wednesday, Ocean made abundantly clear what was already obvious to anyone who has been listening to his music, starting with nostalgia, Ultra, the 2011 mixtape that was released (and remains available) as a free digital download.

That 14-song collection quickly established the artist born Christopher Breaux as the coolly understated, off-kilter soul man who, even more than teenage rapper Earl Sweatshirt, signified that there was something much more than foulmouthed provocation going on with the indie hip-hop collective Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, of which he is a member.

Evidence of Ocean's talent and ambition has mounted since. "No Church in the Wild" and "Made in America," two of the songs with the most heft on Jay-Z and Kanye West's 2011 collaborative album Watch the Throne, are both built around hooks written and sung by Ocean. The latter, a snippet of which Ocean performed at Union Transfer with a four-piece band behind him, inspired the name of the Jay-Z-curated, outsize music festival scheduled for Labor Day weekend in Philadelphia.

This month, Channel Orange (Def Jam ***1/2) arrived. Ocean's superb new album sold 131,000 copies in its first week and opened at No. 2 on the Billboard album chart, despite being available only as an iTunes download. Among its songs was the complex, confessional "Bad Religion," which uses male personal pronouns in ways that spurred speculation about the gender preference of one of pop music's brightest rising stars.

Ocean answered in his own way with his Independence Day declaration, in which he sensitively and eloquently wrote of his unrequited love affair with a man when he was 19. "By the time I realized I was in love, it was malignant," Ocean wrote, adding that when he told his friend how he felt, "He patted my back. He said nice things. He did his best, but he wouldn't admit the same."

Coming out with those words led Ocean to pronounce: "I feel like a free man."

Ocean's note, originally written to be included among the thanks on the Channel Orange credits, caused a stir because of context. Hip-hop has a history of homophobia, like rapper Ja Rule's blanket condemnation in a 2007 interview with Complex magazine, railing about "all these . . . shows that they have on MTV that is promoting homosexuality, that my kids can't watch."

Rap has always been male-dominated, marked by what Georgetown University professor and hip-hop commentator Michael Eric Dyson calls "homosocial" behavior. Groups of guys gathered around one or two alpha rappers, excluding women from the picture: "G's up, hoes down," in Snoop Dogg's formulation. The word faggot isn't hard to find, whether on Goblin, last year's solo album by Ocean's Odd Future compadre Tyler the Creator, or "40 Bars," former Sixer Allen Iverson's 2000 single that ended his music career before it began. Or even in the ouevre of beloved godfather of rap Gil Scott-Heron, whose 1970 debut album included a heinous screed called "The Subject Was Faggots."

Within that macho culture, the idea that a well-known rapper would be outed as gay has hovered like an unexploded bombshell over hip-hop culture. That's remained true even as hip-hop has moved toward a more accepting attitude, dating from the joint performance of Eminem, then hotly criticized for his homophobic lyrics, with Elton John at the Grammy Awards in 2001, to Jay-Z's backing of President Obama's support for gay marriage. The rap kingpin told CNN that Obama's approval of same-sex marriage was "the right thing to do."  

Ocean's blog post wasn't the explosive equivalent of a gay rap superstar revelation. For one thing, he's not even a rapper. He's a modern rhythm-and-blues artist who is closely associated with - and perhaps more important, highly respected by - the hip-hop, and hipster, community.

After his statement, some of Ocean's thought-to-be heterosexual love songs are open to revisionist analysis. The search for clues might turn up ambiguities in, say, "Swim Good," the typically multileveled tune from nostalgia, Ultra that can be read as a not-acted-on suicide note or a statement of the breadth of Ocean's ambition. "I'm about to drive into the ocean," he sang at Union Transfer, showing off a luminous falsetto and a subtly skillful way with phrasing a deeply personal lyric. "I'ma try to swim in something bigger than me."

Haters will hate, and it's not all that difficult to find anonymous Internet dwellers who say they will never listen to Ocean's music again. But the immediate public reaction was almost exclusively positive, and retail chain Target's decision not to stock Channel Orange, it seems, had to do with the exclusive first-week sales deal being given to iTunes rather than the content of the music.

Gay & Lesbian Alliance against Defamation president Herndon Graddick praised the singer: "Frank Ocean's bravery will no doubt help countless young people, who might still be struggling with their identities, realize that it's OK to be who you are."

Ocean's buddy in Odd Future, Tyler the Creator, tweeted, "My Big Brother Finally . . . Did That. Proud Of [him] Cause I Know that S - Is Difficult Or Whatever." Montreal electro duo Chromeo wrote "Respect to frank_ocean. Single handedly uplifting the culture. As if the great tunes weren't enough. Salute!"

And Russell Simmons, the Def Jam cofounder and hip-hop father figure, wrote, "the courage of Frank Ocean just changed the game."

That is also the contention of Dyson, who told MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry that he believes "It's a sea change, potentially, a kind of earthquake within that genre. It's one thing to say . . . 'I'm with the president.' It's another thing for an artist within hip-hop to say he is a same-sex, same-gendered loving man. It begins to challenge the codes of . . . masculinity."

At Union Transfer, Ocean performed in front of an adoring, all-ages, racially mixed crowd that had grabbed up all available tickets weeks before the singer's news turned him into a media sensation. His performance of Channel Orange standouts such as the gorgeously sung earworm "Thinkin' About You" and the time-traveling epic "Pyramids" had an element of gospel-schooled ecstasy about them even as he navigated thorny, melancholy terrain.

The audience, camera phones snapping, made Ocean feel so loved that, on more than one occasion, he couldn't help but blush.

Ocean made reference to his revelation twice. He sang a particularly stirring version of "Bad Religion," which begins, "Taxi driver, be my shrink for an hour," and concludes "it's a bad religion / To be in love with someone who could never love you." And earlier in the show, Ocean paused to address his audience with a voice more rife with emotion than your average boilerplate thank-you.

"Acts of bravery," he said, "don't always get such positive feedback."


Contact Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628 or deluca@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @delucadan. Read his blog, "In the Mix," at www.philly.com/inthemix.

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