frank ocean
Frank Ocean, Blond

Frank Ocean’s two long-awaited studio projects (the visual album Endless and the subsequent CD Blonde) are soaring musical achievements that easily set him apart from nearly all of his pop-soul peers. Arriving four years after his Grammy Award winning debut Channel Orange; Endless and Blond provide listeners with a dreamlike, psychedelic glimpse into the inner life of a queer Black man meditating on the meanings of life, love, celebrity, and identity.

But those who approach these two albums searching for club anthems and radio beats, will inevitably leave disappointed. Endless and Blond are not designed for nightclubs, instead these are movement-lullabies to be played in candle-lit rooms full of smoke and incense. More importantly, Endless and Blond serve as subtle soundtracks for the Black Lives Matter movement — a movement that has attempted to broaden the conversation about which Black lives truly have value.

Vocally, the lead track of Blond is “Godspeed”: Ocean’s gorgeous, theologically-informed love letter about moving on from a former lover. In his zine Boys Don’t Cry, Ocean describes the making of the track:

“‘I wrote a story in the middle — it’s called ‘Godspeed’. It’s basically a re-imagined part of my boyhood. Boys do cry, but I don’t think I shed a tear for a good chunk of my teenage years. It’s surprisingly my favorite part of my life so far. Surprising, to me, because the current phase is what I was asking the cosmos for when I was a kid. Maybe that part had it’s rough stretches too, but in my rearview mirror it’s getting small enough to convince myself it was all good. And really though… It’s still all good.”



As the epigraph above suggests, part of the cultural intervention that “Godspeed” offers (as do both Endless and Blond more broadly) is a re-imagined vision of Black masculinity: a masculinity untethered by the mandate to be strong. In Ocean’s musical world, Black boys are given a space to cry and be vulnerable, to be tender and unsure. Emotionally and musically, the track “Godspeed” invokes the same melancholic intensity as Ocean’s earlier 2012 hit “Bad Religion.” Listeners will note that much like that earlier track, the instrumental presence of organs and keyboards immediately invokes the history of the Black church. But Ocean’s church is not the church of the mainstream. Instead, his is the church of James Baldwin and Langston Hughes: a church where queer desire and sacred praise are not rendered mutually exclusive.

A still from the musical video of Frank Ocean’s “Nike,” where the artist holds up a memorial of Trayvon Martin while singing “RIP Trayvon, That Nigga Look Just Like Me.”

A still from the musical video of Frank Ocean’s “Nike,” where the artist holds up a memorial of Trayvon Martin while singing “RIP Trayvon, that n***a look just like me.”

 

In the glitter-tinged video for Blonde’s opening track, “Nike,” Ocean offers a sonic safe space for alternative articulations of Black male identity. These alternative articulations include images of Black men who wear makeup (as Ocean does throughout “Nike”) and teenage Black boys like Trayvon Martin who simply want to return home at night without fear of being executed simply for inhabiting a Black male body. The album cover for Blond — -with Ocean’s wild green hair prominently on display — further affirms non-traditional presentations of the Black male self.

Moreover, the ghosting presence of Black women (both cis and transgendered) lingers all over both Blonde and Endless. Throughout both projects, the voices of Black women serve as Ocean’s trusted voices of wisdom and encouragement. The voice of gospel singer Kim Burrell closes out the final moments of “Godspeed;” the voice of Jazmine Sullivan is heard throughout “Rushes;” Beyoncé quietly appears on background in “Pink and White;” and the trace of soul singer Aaliyah is clearly present in the falsetto of Ocean’s voice in his stirring rendition of “At Your Best You Are Loved.” In addition, sandwiched right between “U-N-I-T-Y,” (where Ocean references Chicago and Palestine) and “Comme Des Garçons,” (a song ostensibly about a brother on the DL) there is an interlude track entitled “Ambience 001 — In A Certain Way.” There, listeners will hear the voice of another Black woman: Crystal Labeija, the founding trans “mother” of the House of Labeija. The audio (which is taken from the underground documentary “The Queen”) features Labeija “reading” a white drag contestant at a 1967 ball in New York City. Blond and Endless showcase sonic Black womanness in all its layered complexity and variation.

Crystal Labeija, the trans mother of the “House of Labeija” makes a cameo appearance in Ocean’s “Blond.”

Crystal Labeija, the trans mother of the “House of Labeija” makes a cameo appearance in Ocean’s “Blond.”

 

In the wake of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, Ocean’s new music arrives at a political moment where the public is being asked to pay greater attention to voices within the Black community whose lives have historically been ignored. It is no secret that #BlackLivesMatter was founded by Black women and that members of the LGBTQ community have been some of the most visible organizers within the movement. As the recent policy platform of BLM makes abundantly clear, #BlackLivesMatter is a movement concerned with much more than simply taking a stand against police violence. It is movement concerned with creating safe spaces for all Black people, not simply cisgendered, heterosexual Black men. Part of what makes Endless and Blonde politically relevant, is that the music resonates (in terms of themes, featured-guest artists, and story-lines) with two constituencies that have been of special importance to the legacy of the BLM movement: Black women and queer folk. Thus, Ocean’s two new albums symbolically offers a sonic safe-space for the articulation of Black experiences that go beyond simply the heterosexual male norm.

Some have suggested that the scattered/fragmented quality of the music is too alienating or strange for contemporary audiences. Many fans have remarked unfavorably on the abstract and experimental quality of Endless and Blonde. But rather than interpreting Ocean’s musical abstractionism as a liability, perhaps we might do well to consider it as his greatest gift to the realm of commercial pop. Being Black and queer is not easy: and neither should music. Indeed, the experimental, illegible quality of Ocean’s two albums seems to speak perfectly to the lived experience of being Black and queer: it is layered, sometimes strange, and always difficult to understand.

If you’re having a difficult time “getting into” Ocean’s new albums, perhaps that difficulty stems from being uncomfortable listening to music that does not adhere to the standard conventions of commercial pop.

And perhaps that is exactly the point.

Frank Ocean’s music matters because it forces us to listen in detail for minor frequencies. His recent albums demand that we closely listen for dissonant voices — — the voices (and stories) that are usually omitted from the historically heteropatriarchal domain of male rhythm and blues. Endless and Blond matter because they point us to a world not-yet-here: a world where the lives and stories of queer/trans people; Black women, and the socially marginalized, actually do matter and have value.


Frank Leon Roberts teaches at New York University. He is the creator of BlackLivesMatterSyllabus.com



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