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Revolution through recluse: The importance of Frank Ocean on modern hip hop

On  Blonde’s  ‘Seigfried’, an intoxicated Frank muses “I be dreaming of dreaming a thought / that could think of dreaming a thought / that could think of dreaming a dream”. All as he retreats within himself to reflect. A line, like so many others on Blonde, which had millennials far and wide holding heads in hands, staring at ceilings and confronting the overwhelmingly serious questions of youth. Yet one that also touches on a deeper importance. Its lack of intelligibility reflects Frank as an artist who, in his own irreverent way, breaks down the boxes other people put him in. Having just turned 33 last week, now seems the perfect time to reflect on a creator of generational importance, his two near-perfect albums, and the defiance towards labels that came with them.

Christopher Edwin Breaux, otherwise known as Frank Ocean, is arguably the definitive figure of hip hop and RnB of the 2010s. Not necessarily an archetypal voice, he nonetheless captures a peripheral sort of zeitgeist in his own moody, ruminative way. “It’s just a skull, least that’s what they call it / And we’re free to roam,” he sings on ‘White Ferrari’. This line seems to represent everything Frank has come to stand for in the music industry; a kind of elusive refusal to be pinned down or bracketed. To him, labels are merely an impediment. His two important albums, 2012’s Channel Orange and 2016’s Blonde, have in themselves become individual benchmarks in music throughout the 2010s, whilst simultaneously documenting his increased reclusiveness.

Historically, LGBTQ representation in mainstream hip hop has been low. This goes all the way back to the song that putatively saw the inception of popularised rap music, the Sugarhill Gang’s 1979 hit ‘Rapper’s Delight’, on which Big Bank Hank dismisses his sexual rival; “he’s a fairy, I do suppose / flying through the air in pantyhose”. Nowadays, rappers like Eminem still drop homophobic slurs freely in their lyrics, and Migos rapper Offset eloquently states on the track ‘Boss Life’, “I cannot vibe with queers.” Queer hip hop movements such as NYC Queer Rap still remain somewhat on the margins of the mainstream.

Frank Ocean’s 2012 album Channel Orange was its own quiet act of defiance for the LGBTQ community. On July 4, the week before its release, Frank released a now infamous Tumblr post. On it, he says “4 Summers ago, I met somebody, I was 19 years old. He was too. We spent that summer, and the summer after, together.” Whilst not an outright statement of revolution against an entire genre, Frank’s openness was itself a big step in the reformation of a genre that always seemed to have hypermasculine homophobia ingrained in its DNA. Since then, artists such as Tyler, The Creator and Brockhampton’s Kevin Abstract and Steve Lacy have made music through an openly queer lens.

A further refusal to be pinned down came to fruition with Frank’s release of Blonde in 2016, referred to by Billboard as “the straw that broke Universal Music’s back.” Frank’s contract saw him obligated to release two albums while signed to Def Jam, and after Channel Orange, a period ensued in which he attempted and failed to part ways with them. He described this process as a “seven year chess game.” Following a four-year hiatus, Frank made his anticipated return with Endless, a livestream visual album which saw him slowly building a staircase set to music. A day later, however, the world was hit with the real deal, arguably Frank’s magnus opus; Blonde. Released as a studio album on his own label, Boys Don’t Cry, along with pop up shows for an accompanying magazine in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and London, Frank was able to finally release an album in his own right (with a financial perk too; he increased his potential profit share from 14 percent to 70 percent of total revenues within 24 hours). A fast one had well and truly been pulled. Frank had dropped all labels, thereby coinciding with and instigating a change in the course of modern hip hop and RnB, both in its ideologies and its corporate institution.

Despite   the   level of controversy surrounding both albums, the reason both have and will continue to be remembered is the sheer pleasure of listening to them. One could fill pages on pages simply by describing the beauty of his sound. Channel Orange offers 17 tracks packed with sprawling ideas, all drenched in a woozy, bassy layer of pristine production. The nine-minute epic ‘Pyramids’ has to be the centrepiece, in which he describes the slide to rock-bottom of a woman who has mistakenly left him. “She’s headed to the pyramid / she’s working at the pyramid tonight,” Frank sings as the drop hits, followed by a minute of airy John Mayer guitar solo. A track like so many which truly just immerses its listener.

But Blonde still just about takes the cake. So spare, so stripped back, and yet so cerebral. Caught up in a haze of marijuana-soaked, post- coital brooding, Frank runs the gamut of his emotions across one paradisiacal hour. On the track ‘Solo’ he toys with the loneliness of his own solitude. Initially, he raps “Now we outside and the timing’s perfect / Forgot to tell you, gotta tell you how much I vibe with you. And we don’t gotta be solo.” But then ultimately he is “smoking good, rolling solo.” On ‘Skyline To’ he laments the bygone carefree days of youthful summers; “summer’s night as long as it used to be / every day counts like crazy (smoke, haze).” ‘Futura Free’ sees an epic two-parter in which Frank addresses his rise to fame. “Now I’m making, 400, 600, 800k momma,” and then “I ain’t on no schedule / I ain’t had me a job since 2009.” Caught up in a world of muted organs and soft guitar licks, one really can retreat to the space of their headphones and experience the interiority of Frank’s brain first-hand.

Frank, in two albums, has provided a soundtrack for the angsty lives of teens and twenty- somethings throughout this decade. More importantly, he has instigated his own miniature revolution simply by being himself. He is a symbol, both of defiance and recluse, but his music will stand as significant for many years to come.

Image: Eve Miller