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How Frank Ocean’s ‘Blonde’ Redefines Pop Queerness

Singer-songwriter’s latest isn’t the overt statement some LGBT fans expected – and it’s all the more exciting for it.

Singer-songwriter's latest isn't the overt statement some LGBT fans expected – and it's all the more exciting for it.

The word “gay” shows up just once on Blonde, the long-awaited sophomore album from Frank Ocean. In the short interlude “Good Guy,” Ocean describes a blind date with someone he met through a mutual friend. After this new acquaintance takes him to a “gay bar,” their incompatibility becomes apparent. His date talks too much and is thinking short term. “I know you don’t need me right now/And to you it’s just a late night out,” sings Ocean. The track, like the encounter, is fleeting, and it’s the only explicit reference Ocean makes to a male partner or love interest over the course of the record’s 60 minutes. But along with Endless, the visual album that preceded it, and Boys Don’t Cry, the magazine that accompanies it, Blonde is the artist’s boldest, queerest project to date.

Ocean’s lauded 2012 debut, Channel Orange, marked a watershed in the music industry. A sprawling and gorgeous blend of R&B, hip-hop, rock, pop and funk, the album came stocked with vivid, poetic accounts of unchecked materialism and addiction, but its showstoppers were songs that seemed to chronicle Ocean’s own heartache, specifically his one-sided affection for another man.

Just days before that record’s release, spurred by speculation from journalists who’d attended pre-listening events and noted his use of the masculine pronoun in certain songs, Ocean posted an open letter to his Tumblr in which he recounted falling for a male companion when he was 19. “It was my first love, it changed my life,” he wrote, detailing how he attempted to come to grips with this revelation through his songwriting. At the end of the letter came catharsis: “I feel like a free man,” Ocean concluded. “If I listen closely … I can feel the sky falling too.”

Never had an acclaimed artist working in R&B and hip-hop spoken so bravely and openly, and when Channel Orange arrived, tracks like “Thinkin Bout You” (with the line “My eyes don’t shed tears, but boy they pour when I’m thinkin’ ’bout you”) and “Forrest Gump” (“you run my mind, boy”) carried deeper meaning. In the searing, organ-led confessional “Bad Religion,” Ocean poured his heart out not to a priest, but to his taxi driver. “This unrequited love/To me it’s nothing but a one-man cult and cyanide in a Styrofoam cup/I could never make him love me,” he laments from the back of a cab, strings swelling around his plaintive vocals. It’s the sound of a man breaking down, buckling under the weight of his secrets and self-deception. It may be the most impassioned, devastating plea from one man to another ever recorded.

Listeners won’t find an equivalent to “Bad Religion” on Blonde – at least not an obvious one. Despite being an R&B record, Channel Orange quicklybecame a talking point in the conversation about homophobia in rap music, and Ocean established a legion of LGBT fans, many of whom had never heard of him before he shared his story. In the three-plus years he’s been out of the spotlight, the musician has become a contemporary queer icon, a role model – “My hope is that the babies born these days will inherit less of the bullshit than we did,” he wrote in that famous Tumblr letter. But it’s doubtful we’ll see him holding a Pride flag or penning his “Same Love” or “Born This Way” anytime soon. Grand-gesture activism and sloganeering anthems are not Ocean’s bag. The reticent artist prefers to let his art speak for itself, and with Blonde, Endless and Boys Don’t Cry, that art moves in mysterious, nuanced ways.

When Ocean publicly addressed his sexual orientation, he drew comparisons to David Bowie, who made a headline-making proclamation that he was bisexual in 1972, when the legendary musician was at the peak of his brashness portraying his androgynous alien alter ego Ziggy Stardust. But much like how, five years later, Bowie had reined in this theatrics and begun to place a greater emphasis on enhancing his craft, diving into ambient electronica on his albums “Heroes” and Low, Ocean has made his sound and songwriting his priority. Both Blonde and Endless, a 45-minute visual album that features Ocean constructing a staircase to a soundtrack of ethereal avant-pop, bask in ambiguity. They are textured, shape-shifting, introspective mood pieces that unfurl in stream-of-consciousness fashion.

In Endless, Ocean tears through a wardrobe-full of fashion-forward ensembles, sporting each one with confidence and ease. He navigates Blonde‘s sonic palette with similar aplomb, jumping from sun-kissed guitar rock and blissed-out soul to gospel, drum ‘n’ bass, and psych-pop, folding in children’s choirs and pitch-shifted vocals that instantly call to mind Sign O’ the Times–era Prince.

Blonde is queer in the word’s truest sense: nonconforming, elusive, boundless. It celebrates the intangible, the strange. It doesn’t play by the rules.

In a 2012 interview with GQ, Ocean compared identifying himself as bisexual to limiting his intake of musical genres: “I’m giving you what I feel like you can feel,” he said. “The other shit, you can’t feel. You can’t feel a box. You can’t feel a label.” Blonde is queer in the word’s truest sense: nonconforming, elusive, boundless. It celebrates the intangible, the strange. It doesn’t play by the rules.

This sentiment is echoed in Blonde‘s first music video, “Nikes,” and the Boys Don’t Cry magazine distributed free to fans on Saturday at pop-ups in four cities. “Nikes” interlaces shots of Ocean decked out in glitter and heavy eye makeup with clips of androgynous models lying on a floor of cash, and male and female strippers in angel wings. The 300-page glossy boasts images of both nude men and women, including shots from gay art photographer Wolfgang Tillmans. Another photo, taken by Ocean himself, shows a man putting on his underwear next to a car in a field. In the magazine’s introduction, Ocean reasons that his car obsession “links to a deep sub-conscious straight boy fantasy,” before adding, “Consciously though, I don’t want straight – a little bent is good.”

Ocean’s “bent” notion of what music can be in 2016 follows a string of audacious pop and R&B albums released this year, most of which surfaced with little or no notice. Kanye West, Beyoncé, Rihanna and Blood Orange all coloured outside the lines on their latest projects, putting out works in progress, taking sonic leaps and eschewing Top 40 floor-fillers for thoughtful meditations on race, misogyny and infidelity.

Unlike Beyoncé’s Lemonade, however, Ocean’s new albums and visual art take a subtler approach. He may be pushing a queer agenda, but his manifestations of it are elliptical, personal, enigmatic. His new music often feels solitary (“I can’t relate to my peers,” he sings on “Seigfried”). It is laden with nostalgia and reverie; moments that have left impressions on him come in waves, flashing before him. Likewise, his queer cultural references can dissipate almost as soon as they emerge, as with “Ambience 001: In a Certain Way,” a 12-second interlude in Endless that contains a snippet of dialogue from the legendary drag queen Crystal LaBeija, pulled from the 1968 pageant documentary The Queen.

Even Ocean’s most blatant political statement – and the closest he comes to anything as explicit as his declarations on Channel Orange and that game-changing Tumblr post – is disarmingly intimate and slightly opaque. In “Boyfriend,” a short poem in Boys Don’t Cry, the singer 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.” These are the words of someone indifferent to convention, a queer visionary lost in the moment, defining art and love on his own terms.