Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Frank Ocean effect: R&B's new golden boy emerges unscathed

Posted By on Wed, Jul 11, 2012 at 5:44 PM

This very well could be Frank Ocean's best week (and a half) ever: First he reveals his bisexuality, via an open and tender Tumblr letter, to the warmest reception a post-soul hip-hop hybrid could hope for — even OFWGKTA homie and habitual f-word spitter Tyler, the Creator gave him some serious cyber-dap. Then Ocean's debut LP Channel Orange drops a week early on iTunes, further confirming his enigmatic genius, complete with an assist ("Pink Matter") from another mysterious soul, Andre 3000, among others. And finally, along with the support he's received from contemporaries ranging from Beyonce to documented homophobe Busta Rhymes, another R&B singer, Rahsaan Patterson — who, if not for his own openly gay lifestyle a decade earlier, might have enjoyed the same level of mainstream success Ocean is on the cusp of reaping — dedicates a fast-boiled shoutout song to him, titled "Frank (You're Amazing)." Sung to the tune of Jay-Z's "Thank You," it's the sort of bouquet artists usually only get after they're dead.

On the latest episode of WNYC's Soundcheck, music and culture writer Dream Hampton (author of Jay-Z's "Decoded," who penned Ocean a heartfelt thank you letter herself last week) talks about what could become known as the Frank Ocean effect — that against-all-odds embrace an artist gets upon daring to go against the grain in a way that seemingly uplifts the culture.

It's almost hard to believe that all of this is happening on the heels of hip-hop's "no homo"-phobia. But as Hampton points out, Ocean hails from New Orleans, where that semi-subversive variation of bounce music, sissy bounce, has flourished for years.

The interesting thing about Frank Ocean, in light of his coming out, is that he still comes across as masculine, even amid his vulnerability. In other words, Channel Orange ain't no cross-dressing sissy bounce&B — not by a long shot. But even in admitting that, is it fair to prescribe a gender to music? Maybe real love songs defy sexual orientation. I've always wondered if Luther Vandross yearned to replace the female pronouns in his bedroom anthems with "he's" and "his" like Ocean does in the song "Bad Religion." On "We All Try," there's a line in which he sings "I don't believe our nation's flag is on the moon." Believe it or not, his own coming out party may be one small step in Ocean's career, but it's one giant leap for pop consciousness.

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