It’s been a big week for 24-year-old American R&B/hip-hop artist Frank Ocean. Channel Orange, his major label debut album has earned rave reviews. And his decision to come out as gay or bisexual has send shockwaves through the hip-hop community. Homophobic lyrics still pepper many rap songs so Ocean’s announcement represents a significant step forward. “For a culture that accurately prides itself on sonic progression, hip-hop and R&B can be woefully conservative when it comes to sexuality,” reminded leading music blog Pitchfork.
Tyler, The Creator, leader of the Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them (OFWGKTA) collective which Ocean is affiliated to, tweeted his support: “My Big Brother Finally Fucking Did That. Proud Of That Nigga Cause I Know That Shit Is Difficult Or Whatever. Anyway. Im A Toilet.”
Ocean published an emotional open letter on his Tumblr blog, detailing a past relationship with a man, whom he described as his “first love.” In a post suggesting that he is gay or bisexual, Ocean wrote: “Four summers ago, I met somebody. I was 19 years old. He was too. We spent that summer, and the summer after, together. Everyday almost … By the time I realised I was in love, it was malignant. It was hopeless. There was no escaping, no negotiating with the feeling. No choice. It was my first love. It changed my life.”
Hip-hop has changed in the past decade
“Much has changed since 2000, when Eminem rapped ‘Hate fags? The answer’s ‘yes’,”’ argued Tim Walker of The Independent. The newspaper quoted Terrance Dean, author of Hiding in Hip-Hop, a 2008 memoir of hip-hop industry’s thriving, secret gay subculture: “Artists are now unafraid to be who they really are. It makes a bold statement not only for Frank, but for the LGBT community as a whole. Everybody’s been waiting so long for the day when somebody like Frank comes out, so it’s a victory for all of us. Attitudes in hip-hop have totally changed since my book was published. It’s not the same industry it was 10 years ago. It’s not the industry it was two years ago.”
“Given the traditionally macho, homophobic nature of much hip-hop music, this is quite a milestone. He’s sending a very positive, affirmative message that challenges the prejudice of many hip-hop fans. I hope the generous, sympathetic response that Frank has received will embolden other hip-hop stars to also come out,” Peter Tatchell, the veteran British LGBT rights campaigner, told The Independent.
Wildly original talent
In a five-star review in The Guardian, Alexis Petridis rejected suggestions that Ocean has outed himself as a publicity stunt: “However brave his stand, you patently don’t sell R&B albums by becoming a liberal cause celebre … While a mainstream urban artist suggesting he’s anything other than rabidly heterosexual is certainly a big deal, it would be a shame if that’s what Channel Orange was remembered for.” Petridis insisted that Ocean is a “wildly original talent” and praised that, “in a formulaic era, his production is impressively idiosyncratic, heavy on hazy electronics and cavernous, dubby reverb, and packed with weird touches: the melodies never quite pan out as you expect them to, while the backing shifts and changes unpredictably.”
A major singer-songwriting talent
At Pitchfork, Ryan Dombai said Ocean has “quickly proven himself to be among the most gifted singer-songwriters of his generation; he’s got the type of voice, wit, charm, smarts, and ineffable humanity that’s always hoped for, but never promised.” “While Channel Orange is stuffed with one-of-a-kind details and characters, its overall scope is grand, as is Ocean’s,” praised Dombai, who said the album zings with a “spirit of confident, open-minded redefinition; he’s living in his own world, but also fascinated with what’s around him.”