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Abebe: Why Frank Ocean's Coming-Out Was Unique

INDIO, CA - APRIL 13:  Frank Ocean performs during the 2012 Coachella Music Festival at The Empire Polo Club on April 13, 2012 in Indio, California.  (Photo by C Flanigan/FilmMagic)

You’ve likely already read that Frank Ocean — a 24-year-old singer-songwriter, a silk-voiced rising treasure, and the guy who plays the sensible-adult foil to L.A.’s anarchic Odd Future crew — did something Tuesday night that would have to be called coming out. He posted a text on his website describing his first experience of love, which was for another man and went sadly unrequited. Those two paragraphs were written, he said, to fill out the “thank you” space in the credits for his first major-label studio album, Channel Orange, which arrives on the 17th of this month. “But with all the rumors going round,” he wrote, “I figured it’d be good to clarify.” (How many people see album liners these days anyway?)

It’s a striking text, rich and moving, and if you haven’t yet read it, you might want to. It does seem to clarify some things about Ocean as a person, his experience of love, and maybe the ways he’s gone about depicting love in his songs, the best of which tend to involve characters grappling with big questions: what they want, why they do the things they do, what will or will not make them happy. There’s a complex thoughtfulness to his lyrics and stories, and if poring back over them for clues about his sexual identity reveals that to more listeners, so much the better: A track like “Songs for Women” — about singing R&B in order to charm ladies — is full of canny questions well before anyone starts trying to read it against the singer’s personal life. Even Ocean’s best-known song appearance, singing the hook on Kanye West and Jay-Z’s “No Church in the Wild,” is just a series of questions.

What his thank-yous seem less interested in is clarifying the sorts of questions that usually surround coming out. This is one reason they’re worth reading: Their dimensions are refreshingly different from what we’re accustomed to. Ocean never performs that central act we’re used to thinking of as “coming out” — making a plain and public declaration that you can place him in some broad social category like “gay” or “bisexual.” “I’m a storyteller,” he says in a New York Times profile that runs this weekend, and all he does here is tell a story: At 19, he fell in love with a close male friend, a sort of love that made him realize the sentimental songs he’d once listened to, as a teenager with a girlfriend, were “written in a language I did not yet speak.” The friend wasn’t yet able to openly reciprocate those feelings. Ocean was left trying to “master” himself and his emotions, feeling like he’d imagined whatever intimacy was between the two of them.

There’s an obvious public statement involved in telling that tale, but it’s ultimately just a personal story, and one senses the reason it’s being told is mostly so that Ocean can make the art he wants to make out of that experience. (The “rumors” he referred to weren’t gossip about his personal life — they consisted of journalists who’d gotten advance listens to Channel Orange noticing unexpected masculine pronouns in the lyrics.) It’s certainly not what we’re used to, which is watching people far more well-known than Ocean sitting down with a press organ to negotiate the public terms of their identity: how they’ll consent to be defined, which parts of their sexuality are public and which are private, and where lines can be drawn between their personal lives and their work. Ocean’s a writer of songs, though, and many of those songs have to do with love and sex, which means things here can travel in the opposite direction. It’s not so important for anyone to know how he’d categorize himself at the moment; what feels relevant is his actual experience of love, and his thumbnail sketch of one piece of that experience is remarkably potent. (For a single paragraph, it’s incredibly affecting, for about the same reasons his songs can pack a great deal of complexity and feeling into a few short verses.) “Frank Ocean didn’t ‘come out,’” tweeted the British rapper Speech Debelle, “he just let us in.” This seems exactly right — the text feels less like a declaration and more like an explanatory personal note that goes with the art itself.

It’s not a common thing to get from an entertainer’s coming-out, and it’s not something that’s typically asked after. It’s become, I think, a straight American commonplace to want to dignify same-sex relationships by treating them the same way we would heterosexual ones — which means that when someone tells us, for instance, that he’s gay, some of us who are straight might silently assume his relationships are not just as valid as ours but fundamentally the same as ours. As habits go, it’s politically useful and often accurate, but it also means we don’t see much mainstream discussion of the way that figuring out a sexual identity, via any one of the million different paths we all manage it, influences a person’s experience of love itself and the stories they have to tell about how it feels.

Plenty has already been written and speculated about Ocean and his blog post: There’s much chatter about his motivations; about how this might affect his fan base or commercial prospects; about what it means for the worlds of hip-hop and R&B; and about the “contradiction” of the Odd Future crew, much criticized for their juvenile homophobic insults, containing two openly gay members, Ocean and producer Syd tha Kid. (We can also expect a lot of cringe-worthy lyric analysis that interprets every last word Ocean sings through this particular lens, or at least a lot of people furiously editing the pronouns on Rap Genius lyric annotations.) At the moment, though, I’m just looking forward to Channel Orange — not in the hope of learning anything about the singer’s personal life, but in the hope that its songs contain writing anywhere near as eye-openingly rich, well-detailed, and honest as the story Ocean just told us about himself.

Photo: C Flanigan/2012 C Flanigan