If you haven’t read the tumblr note with which Frank Ocean made his declaration of independence, you must. Originally intended to be in the liner notes to “Channel Orange”, it would surely move anyone of any sex or sexuality who has ever been young and in love with someone who didn’t love them back. It is, in a way, a love letter, to a man he once loved and to the world.
“We spent that summer, and the summer after that, together. Almost every day. And when we were together the time glided.” Read that last sentence again – “And when we were together the time glided”– and if something in you doesn’t shiver, you may never have been in love. His bruisingly honest and vulnerable account of confessing his feelings to his friend, and that friend’s rejection, is devastating, his description of his slow recovery beautiful.
If 50 Cent is really confused by Ocean’s motivations in revealing such intense and private emotions (see part 1), then he should also read Ocean’s letter. Any gay man will recognise this description of the relief of being able to talk about their secret: “I was never alone, as much as I felt like it. As much as I still do sometimes. I never was. I don’t think I ever could be.” And then read this perfect closing flourish, its mix of gratitude and fear: “Thank you. All of you. I feel like a free man now. If I listen closely I can feel the sky falling too…”
The wonderful thing is that the sky hasn’t fallen. Ocean has instead made the sky rise, has given gay or bisexual people, or anyone who feels like they don’t quite belong, a little more room to breathe. While the online vitriol from some has been predictably vile, a truly inspiring number of Ocean’s peers have stood by his side, from Tyler the Creator, to Beyonce, to hip hop pioneer Russel Simmons. As Simmons titled his blog in support of Ocean, “The Courage of Frank Ocean Just Changed The Game.”
I’ve seen this in a minor way in my own life. Although I live in Brixton, a majority black area with more than the usual racial mixing, there remain many divides between the black and white residents, some subtle and some blatant. My friend manages a pub with a predominantly white clientele; next door sits a barber shop, majority black. You’ll often find groups from each outside, smoking, but dialogue between the two is sadly rare.
The other night I went to our local pub quiz wearing my Frank Ocean t shirt and went outside for a quick smoke. I was approached by three young black guys who wandered over, wanted to know where I got the shirt, and had I seen Ocean live? “He’s a good man,” they said, and needed say no more. Frank Ocean is breaking down barriers, not only between sexualities, but between races.
His courage and talent has also resulted in “Channel Orange”, an exceptional album in which Ocean explores a huge array of subjects (the lifestyles of the black middle classes, the horrors of crack addiction, stripping and love, love, love) and musical styles (from squiggly seventies funk, to stark ballads, to techno-tinged epics) and synthesises them into something coherent, intelligent and gorgeous. It is – a rarity these daye – a proper album, designed to be listened to from start to finish, and rewarding those who do.
It also sits at number 2 in the US album charts today: chiefly a rightful recognition of its quality, of course, but also a milestone that will make it harder for future gay or bi celebrities to claim they can’t be truthful about themselves because they’ll be punished commercially.
His unrequited love for his old friend is not the album’s focus, though it does provide the album’s most charming moment, the breezily sweet stroll of “Forrest Gump”. It also supplies the most nakedly emotional peak, on “Bad Religion”, with its soft echoes of Prince at his heartfelt best.
Watch this video of Ocean performing the song on the Jimmy Fallon show, his first time on mainstream television, and soak in the stark honesty of the words (“I can’t tell you the truth about my disguise”) and the aching beauty of the vocal (“I could never make him love me, never make him love me.”) Yes, pronouns matter, but the pain of unreturned love is universal.
Watch the heartbreak and intensity that moves across Ocean’s brow as he sings the song, and then watch for the shy smile that breaks across his face when he realises that the audience have listened to him bare his soul, and have loved him for it. The gentle revolutionary has won.