Frank Ocean's tender, transformative confessions

10 years ago, Frank Ocean showed us that not all Black boys are blue.

Photo by Roger Kisby/Getty Images
Culture

There are over 50 Frank Ocean fan accounts on Instagram — frankoceanview, blondeboysdontcry, thesecretlifeoffrank, therealfrankoceannotafake, etc. — all acting as entry points for the quotidian and fanciful parts of his life. Ocean reflexively retreats into solitude once his creative output has been made public, leaving people ravenous for any revealing details about him, either real or fictitious. His 2012 debut album Channel Orange has now reached that 10-year mark, an achievement that feels affirmative and unbelievable. Prior to its release, Ocean granted access to a series of moments that profoundly shaped his life, sharing his love’s story in a letter on his personal Tumblr page. There, he told fans and anyone scrolling about the man he loved, the changes which followed that unrequited emotion, and the tenderness he moved with since. “He patted my back. He said kind things. He did his best, but he wouldn’t admit the same,” Ocean confessed.

At the time, it was rare for a relatively newer artist to turn candor into an essential part of their process, opting for an amplified fragility instead of a manufactured persona meant to top the charts. Most contemporary attempts at sincerity come off as contrived, opportunistic lunges for relevancy buoyed by the algorithms. But Ocean’s letter was a clear-eyed declaration of a person becoming and growing, using art as the momentum to showcase possibilities, and maybe even purpose.

A little over a decade before Ocean’s revelation, the late R&B crooner Luther Vandross took his own steps towards embodying a state of being that was unguarded. In an intimate interview with music critic and author Craig Seymour for Vibe magazine, Vandross broke down the mechanics of what he had dubbed his “alphabet theory,” formulated from his experiences with unrequited love. “Let’s say you’re at A and I’m at Z. What I always did is I came all the way to B,” Vandross told Seymour. “The great place for us to be is at M and N, right there in the middle. What I always did is I came all the way to B to convince you to let me take you to M and N,” he added with careful consideration. “I don’t do that anymore, and not only do I not go all the way to B, I don’t even go to M and N. You have to come to X and Y. So now I have to see you and your intentions.” Years later, Vandross was outed as gay, a secret that was known in ways that ghosts are felt but remain invisible. It wasn’t until after his death that his deeply emotive ballads for love and companionship were recognized as entreaties to the men he pined for — those he waited to meet at the right point of the alphabet after their desires were certain.

When I think of Ocean and the faded dots connecting his love lessons with Vandross, I imagine the Tumblr post as Ocean’s initiation of his audience — a litmus test to glimpse our intentions before fully allowing us into the space he hoped to cultivate. I was just starting university when Ocean presented us with a version of coming out that felt more introductory than closeted. I don’t remember salacious blog gossip or homophobic backlash, and I’ve often wondered if that was a result of the platform or a marker of a particular instance when a lowkey artist turned mainstream and brought us into his orbit. In his letter, Ocean made it clear that when listeners heard Channel Orange’s operatic chords carrying the woeful lyrics ruminating on love, they would know he was remembering the man who hurt and healed him. “We spent that summer, and the summer after, together. Everyday almost,” he wrote. “And on the days we were together, time would glide…..by the time I realized I was in love it was malignant. It was hopeless.”

In the Starz hit series P-Valley, painstakingly crafted by playwright Katori Hall, queer love is transformational. The flirtatious courtship, union, and love-making of two queer characters — rapper Lil Murda, tenderly played by J. Alphonse Nicholson, and strip club owner Uncle Clifford, poetically brought to life by Nicco Annan — manifested in caresses, acts of service, and a postcard stating, “I love you,” because that’s simply all there is. Lil Murda understands that if he wants to ascend to the apex reserved for rap’s greatest, he will need to love differently and move a little less softly than he would otherwise choose to. There’s a constant negotiation between the public personhood you’re forced to construct and the private one you sink into when away from prying eyes — and that is what Ocean’s letter quietly pushed against. He fell in love with a man, and that’s all it was. That’s all it’s ever been for Black queer men, and Ocean was writing for that to be enough, and for his first love to be a legitimate part of his transformative journey. He let us know that not all Black boys are blue and reached for the ecstasy that should accompany dreams realized.

It’s an acknowledgment that Lil Nas X, with every well-timed social media jab against bigots and each chart-topping hit, demands of the world. Yet with every snub (direct or not) and vile attack tossed his way, it’s apparent that while we inhabit a world where he can be No. 1 on the charts and Ocean can be timeless, this same world would have turned away from Luther Vandross if he chose to show up alongside those who changed him. And so the crooner never left point Z, and until his death, listeners and lovers failed to meet him where he stood.

With his letter, Ocean wrote for the 19-year-old boy he had been and the countless other “Human beings spinning on blackness.” He spun, he reached, and along the way he found enough peace to create the art that’s moved us, before retreating to the spaces that protect him.