UNKNOWABLE

Frank Ocean’s LGBT Masterpiece: The Radical Queerness of ‘Blonde’

Frank Ocean’s second album refuses definition. It bends genre, time, and gender, all in the service of staying true to himself. Music is all the better for it.

08.25.16 5:00 AM ET

Like many outsiders, Frank Ocean betrays an obsession with identities and objects just beyond his reach. In an excerpt from the Boys Don’t Cry magazine released last week alongside an album, Blonde, a visual album, Endless, and a music video for the song “Nikes,” Ocean writes about an image of a young girl in a car. “I put myself in her seat then I played it all out in my head. The claustrophobia hits as the seatbelt tightens, preventing me from even leaning forward in my seat. the pressing on internal organs. I lean back and forward to release it. Then backwards and forward again. There it is—I got free.”     

Later in the note, he remembers, “Raf Simons once told me it was cliché, my whole car obsession. Maybe it links to a deep subconscious straight boy fantasy. Consciously though, I don’t want straight—a little bent is good.” Ocean is describing his car fanaticism, an obsession that has defined him, while simultaneously articulating a deep alienation. He does not fit the stereotype of the straight, suburban boy with an encyclopedic knowledge of automobiles. In fact, he seemingly finds it easier to access his memories through the figure of the young girl, whose seatbelt invokes a gut memory of entrapment. 

To say that Blonde is not straight is an understatement. The album—along with the visual album, art magazine, and “Nikes” video—bends genre, bends gender, and bends time. Ocean drives his car across countries and decades, meandering, and zig-zagging. Returning again and again to scenes from his childhood and adolescence, Ocean leaves linearity by the side of the road. Music becomes a vehicle capable of impossible movement, carrying us inside a thought, inside a moment, inside a fantasy. 

Blonde’s unconventional narrative mirrors the real-life story of how the album got here, and all the different forms it has taken throughout its extended gestation. Since the release of his last album Channel Orange in 2012, Ocean has been teasing at this return, releasing various release dates only to abandon them. The journalists who have been burned by broken promises and the fans who have eagerly awaited Ocean’s sophomore album have condemned the singer as outrageously, unnecessarily evasive. Perfectionism is one thing, but what’s the point of setting deadlines only to defy them? Or building a staircase when you should be making music? Or stepping so far out of genre that half the tracks on your album don’t even have a drum beat?

Frank Ocean dashes expectations and refuses definitions for a reason. His phobia of labels and limits isn’t just an affectation—its essential to his art and his self-expression. In 2012, on the cusp of Channel Orange’s release, the critically acclaimed artist published a description of his first love, a male friend who didn’t romantically reciprocate. Ocean’s sexuality is, as he describes it, “dynamic”—a self-assessment that hasn’t stopped journalists from pigeonholing him as bisexual or gay. This refusal of conventional terms is becoming more and more common among younger generations, who increasingly reject binary constructs. Dynamism is at the heart of both the artist and his oeuvre. It’s also part of an ever-evolving definition of queerness. 

Just like Blonde, which refuses to stand still, queerness is less of a location or endpoint and more of a horizon. In the words of queer theorist José Muñoz, “Queerness is not yet here… Put another way, we are not yet queer. We may never touch queerness.” Here queerness is defined not by a destination or a term, but by constant motion. For Ocean, this theorization is tantamount. As Ocean told GQ in 2012 in regards to his uncategorized sexuality and music, “I’m giving you what I feel like you can feel… The other shit, you can’t feel. You can’t feel a box. You can’t feel a label.” By refusing to claim an identity, he reserves the right to constantly redefine.

This is not to say that Blonde fully evades the question of homosexuality. In “Good Guy,” Ocean croons about being taken on a date to a “gay bar.” The date then fizzles into romantic disappointment: “I know you don’t need me right now / And to you it’s just a late night out.” Ocean’s LGBT influences are also on display in “Ambience 001: In a Certain Way,” a short interlude on Endless that samples the voice of iconic drag queen Crystal LaBeija. 

But Ocean references bitches just as often as he references boys. It’s the kind of irreverence and mutability that makes Ocean such a difficult gay icon, and such an intriguing queer one. Frank does not seem inclined to take on any responsibilities as the hip-hop world’s pre-eminent gay artist—a label he’s never claimed and does not seem likely to. While he wrote eloquently and openly on the Orlando Pulse shooting, Blonde doesn’t contain any similarly political gay statements or eulogies. 

Throughout the album, visual album, and magazine, he seems more preoccupied with disorientation than orientation. While Apple Music lists the album as Blonde, the cover art reads Blond. This interchangeable masculine and feminine is at the heart of the video for “Nikes,” a song named after a traditionally masculine hip-hop fetish. The video weaves together shots of Ocean in glitter and heavy makeup with nude men and women, dancing in angel wings. Ocean’s ability to sample from gendered aesthetics and expectations even as he pulls from various genres and indulges in multiple media reveals his unflinching commitment to flexibility in all things. And while Frank makes this restlessness look like art, and even makes it look like fun, it’s more than just lighthearted experimentation. To define oneself leads to pressures and responsibilities—to produce another Channel Orange, or to pen the next gay anthem. On “Nikes,” Ocean shouts out Trayvon Martin, musing, “That n**** looked just like me.” Identities, from race to sexual orientation, can trap, define, even kill. Artistically, they can stagnate. And so, Ocean keeps moving, citing over 40 musical contributors on an album that refuses categorization or ideological co-option.

Of course, the way Ocean approaches queerness is partly pragmatic. Hip-hop has never had a gay superstar. As a community, the hip-hop world is still plagued by homophobia, and prohibitive molds of masculinity. While male rappers are expected to abide by certain conventions, there appears to be a loophole for MCs who have expanded their artistic reach. One example is Young Thug, a rapper who was featured in Calvin Klein’s Autumn/Winter 2016 campaign. In a video for the brand, Young Thug spoke to his penchant for pulling outfits from menswear and womenswear, explaining, “I feel like there is no such thing as gender.” While Young Thug’s remarks triggered a bit of a backlash, with hip-hop fans and media outlets musing on his sexuality, there also seemed to be an increasing understanding that queerness isn’t synonymous with homosexuality. It’s also important to note that Young Thug stated his progressive philosophy in a fashion forum, not on a track or in a Breakfast Club interview. Jaden Smith was similarly embraced by sartorial tastemakers for his androgynous style, proving that while gendered experimentation might be rare in hip-hop, its male denizens can find precedent and encouragement by dipping into outside worlds. 

Like Kanye West before him, Frank Ocean is exploiting this distancing loophole by presenting himself as a multi-faceted artist. By making stairs, shooting film, and producing magazines, Ocean defies the rapper label just as he shirks a gay or bisexual identification. By deliberately refusing to be known as a gay rapper or a bisexual man in hip-hop, Ocean can partially skirt the homophobic bias that the hip-hop community can’t seem to shake. 

Queer, which is not a single, stable identity, might be more accurately described as an active critique of the normal and the normative. Normality is not universally accessible, or universally desired. The queer subject, forced to the outside, is given the complicated gift of perspective. Blonde is made rich through this looking in. Frank Ocean, a sexually fluid, black man who attempts to defy gender, is just the outsider to take on America in 2016. In Ocean’s capable hands, the familiar becomes strange. In Boys Don’t Cry, Ocean queers Americana, photographing a man putting on his underwear in a field, and sharing images of young men with automobile logos shaved into their heads. In a featured poem, Kanye West manages to write a deeply unsettling ode to the most ubiquitous fast-food joint in America: McDonald’s. In “Nights,” Ocean is homeless in Texas after being run out of Louisiana by Hurricane Katrina. In all these complementary projects, things that are quintessentially American—McDonald’s, cars, the South—are taken and made unfamiliar and disquieting through the lens of race, trauma, and sexuality. Ocean’s unique commentary, and the alienation that informs it, is a quiet, powerful critique.

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In the wake of rights-based victories like gay marriage, some queer activists have questioned a movement that prioritizes the chance to be the same over the freedom to be different. This is where Ocean, and his rejection of the straight, comes into play. In a piece from Boys Don’t Cry titled “Boyfriend,” he writes, “I could say that I’m happy / they let me and my boyfriend become married / I could say that I’m happy / but cross my heart I didn’t notice.” It’s as if Frank is deliberately playing with expectations or hopes for his gay politics by claiming apoliticism. Of course, queer folks might argue that this apathy toward marriage equality is a deeply political rejection of homonormativity. And Ocean goes both ways—on “Seigfried,” he ponders and then ultimately dismisses the allure of the heteronormative. Ocean wonders if his lack of convention makes him a “fool”—“Maybe I should move / Settle down, two kids and a swimming pool.” But in the end, he wagers, “I’d rather live outside.” 

In Blonde, “living outside” is a personal sacrifice and a risky wager. Barred from the acceptability of straight love or the stability of a legible gay identity, Ocean has no choice but to keep moving, and keep longing. Vexation and disappointment are everywhere, and satiation seems impossible. With such an uncertain future, he looks to the past as he heads for the horizon. On “Futura Free,” the final track on Blonde, Ocean excerpts an old conversation between his childhood friends from the hip-hop crew Odd Future. On an album marked by romantic disillusionment, this return evokes the family making and platonic love that is so vital to queer communities. In a world where love disappoints and normalcy isn’t an option, there’s an art to making your own family, and finding intimacy in unexpected places. 

Ocean’s steady stream of emotionally unavailable partners, unanswered texts, unfulfilled dreams and missed connections speaks to a specific brand of disoriented desires. In common parlance, sexuality is often reduced to orientation. But queer theory proposes that the desiring subject is so much more than the gender of the person they have sex with. This is certainly the case for Ocean—Blonde isn’t about who he loves, but how he loves them. His bravely broadcasted intimacy is proof that boys do cry, that sexuality can be fluid, that love can be unrequited, platonic, queer, and cruel. He makes the familiar strange, but he also makes the strange familiar. Even the most traditionally masculine straight boy will see pieces of himself in Ocean’s fluid oeuvre—childhood memories that could belong to any of us, texts that sound familiar, landscapes we’ve seen, half-asleep, out the window. In queering the world and chronicling the queer, Ocean’s bent masterpiece brings under-represented modes of desire to the mainstream.