In a new interview for VMAN, in which Frank Ocean interviews “Call Me By Your Name” star Timothée Chalamet, Chalamet quotes some lyrics from Ocean’s song, “Siegfried.”
“Dreaming a thought that could dream about a thought / That could think of the dreamer that thought / That could think of dreaming and getting a glimmer of God.” Ocean laughs and says, “Don’t do that.” Even without hearing the audio, it seems like a bashful response, a reminder of why I, and so many of us, love him.
Frank Ocean is the anti-pop star pop star, the kind of impossibly cool musician who’s the antithesis of all we’ve come to expect from famous people, simultaneously untouchable and relatable. He’s a reclusive singer/songwriter who took the world by storm with 2012’s magnificent opus Channel Orange, only to disappear for four years and then resurface with the quietly brilliant one-two punch of “Endless” and “Blonde.”
In the process, he revealed he was a secret badass behind doors, flipping the bird to his label with the release of “Endless.” That video-only Apple Music exclusive fulfilled his contract with Def Jam. When “Blonde” sold 276,000 copies the first week, it was on his imprint, Boys Don’t Cry. Yep, that was all his money.
He’s a pioneer in the wild, wild west of the modern music industry. With “Blonde,” he released a free 300-page zine – a CD with a different track listing than the digital version – themed pop-ups in select cities. He didn’t need to tour (he bowed out of several festival appearances). And that was fine, because we didn’t need him to tour. The relationship we have with his music withstands all of that. The beauty of it, the magic, it all resides within the songs.
The way his staccato phrasing wraps itself around sparse beats, the way he shifts his pitch into high gear and then layers it, the way he mumbles but says absurdly profound things.
When he does perform, his performances are subtle, low-key, lo-fi. The audience is often positioned like they’re listening in on a private jam session. He’s a star, in that his music is well-known and highly anticipated, but the spotlight is blinding and he often avoids it.
He seems stitched together from the fabric of the legends, the futuristic arrangements and multiple voices of Prince, the intimacy and intricate storytelling of Joni Mitchell, the musicianship of D’Angelo.
He represents an era in which our favorite artists reside in their own worlds. Frank isn’t worried about selling out stadiums, scoring #1 hits, or racking up billions of streams. He doesn’t launch 6-month long album campaigns. He makes music, and when it’s ready, he gives it to us. In 2017, he was front and center on our playlists with standalone releases like “Chanel,” “Provider,” and “Biking.” “Chanel” was a fixture on almost every critic’s year-end songs list.
Furthermore, he’s openly queer, revealing his bisexuality in a heartfelt Tumblr post that broke the internet.
His musical stylings can’t be tied down, and neither can his sexuality. It’s truly remarkable for someone who quickly became the rapper’s go-to for an intelligent, idiosyncratic hook. An ongoing partner of Kanye West and JAY-Z, a songwriter for Beyoncé, he forced hip hop, and all its toxically masculine artists, to rub elbows with a queer person, to respect a queer person, to view and absorb his art and recognize its greatness. Even if “Blonde” had never hit the top spot on the Billboard albums chart or moved the units, that impact was defining for us. That impact will always matter.
Frank isn’t just representative of the shifting and changing landscape of the music biz, though he’s certainly a figure to watch in this respect; he’s representative of us, of what we can do, who we can touch, how we can swing the pendulum when we have a seat at the table.
As I write this, I’m revisiting his discography, thinking about how I felt the first time I heard “Bad Religion,” how monumental it was to hear a man sing about loving another man. “I can never make him love me/Never make him love me,” he sang. Later in the song, he breaks into a high-pitched howl after singing those words.
In 2012, I was 28, and I was shook, emotional, because of the raw nerve that song struck, because of the deep emotion pouring out of his voice, because he was telling a story I’d always wanted to hear on record and thought no one would ever tell.
That’s what Frank represents for me and for so many of us. So, as we remember and recognize all the usual suspects this Black History Month, let’s take a moment to recognize the greats who aren’t done moving us, who are still churning out era-defining work, and whose best we have yet to see.
This Black History Month, let us recognize Frank Ocean, in all his genius, his queerness, and his success.