I never experienced obsession with a celebrity during my teenage years. It may be a pretty standard rite of passage for most young adults in the Western world, but for whatever reason it evaded me for years. In fact, my spell disproportionate admiration for a celebrity came when I was around twenty. I have been a fan of Frank Ocean since the first time I heard Channel Orange in the summer of 2012. It was a masterpiece; a pulsating tapestry of soul weaving together a poignant story of justice, love and materialism. But it wasn’t the addictive musicality of Frank Ocean that won my heart; but the mindfulness and emotion that went with it.
I was seventeen in 2012 when I first heard Frank Ocean. I was, and still am, a fortunate, well-off, confident gay man – I had no internal strife about who I was and no immediate external forces shaming me for my sexuality, yet five casual words in the hook of Ocean’s Forrest Gump instilled a pride in me that I had never known – “you run my mind, boy”.
So casual, so blasé, so normal.
Ocean, who had come out that year himself, and revealed he was attracted to men, was an unseen pioneer. It reminds me of a seminar during my time at university when we discussed the concept of ‘hypermasculinity’, including that which is intertwined with black urban music. Think about it right now, even prominent LGBT + artists are scarcely so forthright in gendering their love stories in song. Sam Smith, for example, persistently uses neutral pronouns in his music to cater for the masses where heterosexuals make no such allowance.
It’s an unrelenting undercurrent of alienation in all genres of music; homosexual men are excluded from the narrative of the greatest works of romance, sex and heartbreak. We must choose – are we a man or are we singing about a man – we can so rarely be both.
In hip-hop and R&B, a Venn diagram Frank Ocean’s eclectic melancholy barely fits these days, is the antithesis of homosexuality. It is all about loving women, or fucking women. Even Ocean himself partook in this trope on his 2011 mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra which features a track called Songs 4 Women no less. But just one year later, Frank Ocean would normalise something that the confident 17-year-old me didn’t even realise was atypical at the time. He ended the straight-only club of hip-hop with five simple words. There was no fanfare, no undue hysteria but a man singing about a romance with another man without incident. As Channel Orange came and went, Ocean grew more and more confident in his role as an LGBT+ icon, whilst still retaining his enigmatic allure. He took to Tumblr, the only place to catch his public musings, and spoke of the evil done to his LGBT+ ‘brothers’ by ISIS and the shooter at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando.
In 2016, his second album dropped and his confidence in his identity shone through even more. Ocean came back with another moody tour de force with the double release of Blonde, and its visual accompaniment Endless. All of a sudden, Ocean was far brasher in his queerness; not only was he singing about same-sex love but now with the same sexual gratuity heterosexual artists had taken for granted.
“All this drilling got the dick feeling like a power tool” he sings of a male-lover from Dallas on Comme des Garcons. “I don’t cut bitches no more” he casually proclaims on Futura Free, neither lyric is a hook, nor from the chorus, they’re probably lyrics that passes most listeners by – because yet again, he’s made it normal.
Throughout 2017, Ocean continued releases of new music via Blonded Radio, his hit Chanel burst on to the radio with the line “my guy pretty like a girl”. In the passenger seat of the car, I look up from my phone, spin the volume dial up and suddenly, I’m singing along as a man who likes men, and guess what? It feels normal.
In the space of six years, Frank Ocean has proven himself to be one of the most talented artists of a generation. And with an almost silent torrent of unabashed activism, he has subverted the rules of music and popular culture. Suddenly, it’s okay to be a man singing about loving and fucking other men – the ultimate source of empowerment and the enfranchisement of young LGBT+ men. He is without doubt the most important gay icon of my life-time. So thank you for the music, Frank, and for making me feel normal.