While walking through a zoo five years ago with several close friends, I realized something, that I had fallen in love with one of them. And that realization twisted my stomach in knots that took over a year to untie because that was not something I was prepared for or equipped to process. During high school, I was a typical teenager, in that there were at least two crushes per academic year that I stumbled through, so crushes were not new territory for me. What was so frightening and gut-wrenching this time was that it was the first (and to this point, only) time I had serious romantic feelings for another man. I knew that would never go anywhere, so the battering waves of unrequited love never reached me; the question of what that meant about who I am, however, tore at me relentlessly.
And that doesn’t make me special. In fact, that spills me into the pool with the rest of the human population in our current era, being burdened with the uncertainty of one’s identity. A product of our incredibly individualistic culture in the Western world is our constant desire to create a strong sense of our own autonomy and identity. And because of that, it can often be something we are ashamed (or at the very least, hesitant) to speak honestly about in public when our identities are not crystal solid, which is what makes Frank Ocean’s discography, particularly his most recent major release Blonde, so unique and vital in the United States’ current culture. While I am sure there are more profound (and thoroughly researched) theories as to why being open about how fragile our identities are is so terrifying at times, I wonder if it is because we’re under intense pressure to be all put together in the eyes of our followers on social media, our colleagues and employers, and our prospective friends and mates. And whether we perceive it on a conscious level or not, we are constantly being given conflicting scripts inside scripts inside scripts dictating who we are now and directing us toward who we should become. These scripts and pressures then culminate in a jagged fragmentation of our sense of self. And I think Frank Ocean speaks to that in his most recent release.
One of the most prominent themes found throughout his most recent major release Blonde – and his subsequent single “Chanel”, for that matter – is the concept of human duality. Frank Ocean masterfully weaves memories throughout his life of broken relationships, mistakes, desires and aspirations, personal revelations, his experiences as a bisexual man, and life lessons learned all together to make a tapestry of seeming contradictions about himself and opposing forces within himself. This sense of being fragmented in two is apparent in the deep and surface details, like the title itself, Blonde, though it is stylized as Blond on the cover, playing on the masculinity and femininity of the two spellings of one term and the two halves of his one being.
And he’s quick to the point in the first track “Nikes”. In the music video version, there are two overlaid voices, one at a high register and the other deep to represent the two sides of his sexuality and dual masculinity and femininity. And the high register present in both versions of the song contain lyrics revolving around a criticism of materialism, pervasive in his life and the life of his friends since his having reached stardom. He and his friends have surrounded themselves with material possessions with the hope for something lasting, but it all falls short, leaving him to tread through the ephemeral in the search for something eternal. In this track, he gives a vignette in the following lyrics of his cousin’s girlfriend helping his cousin with his cocaine business.
That my little cousin, he got a little trade/ His girl keep the scales, a little mermaid/ We out by the pool, some little mermaids/ Me and them gel/ Like twigs with them bangs/ Now that’s a real mermaid/ You been holding your breath/ Weighted down/ Punk madre, punk papa/ He don’t care for me/ But he cares for me/ And that’s good enough/ We don’t talk much or nothin’/ But when we talkin’ about something/ We have good discussion/ I met his friends last week/ Feels like they’re up to something/ That’s good for us
For most of the second half of the verse we are given the narrative of the girlfriend, but just before that, we get Frank’s insistence to her that she is not like the crowd and circumstances into which she’s settled herself. She can do better than being content with being taken care of financially but receiving no true affection, being destroyed by chasing after fleeting moments and passions like Ariel from The Little Mermaid.
The contrast between the lasting (real) and ephemeral (artificial) becomes even starker in the accompanying music video, filled with scenes of sensuality and cheap excitements, only to be revealed to be staged, fake, when shown a wider, alternate perspective.
Plus the two words, “Rain, glitter,” placed together in the lyrics take on a deeper meaning as metaphors for the real and eternal juxtaposed against the artificial and ephemeral as we see figures deluged by both.
It is more than the ephemeral and eternal, though; it is also the collision of the tangible without and the intangible within. And this tension becomes most directly displayed in the track “Be Yourself,” a recording of a voicemail message of a childhood friend’s mother reminding her son of the importance of resilience against peer pressure.
“Many college students have gone to college and gotten hooked on drugs, marijuana, and alcohol. Listen, stop trying to be somebody else. Don’t try to be someone else. Be yourself and know that that’s good enough. Don’t try to be someone else. Don’t try to be like someone else, don’t try to act like someone else, be yourself. Be secure with yourself. Rely and trust upon your own decisions. On your own beliefs. You understand the things that I’ve taught you. Not to drink alcohol, not to use drugs.”
While the mother’s advice is certainly coming from sincere and loving intentions, a contradiction seems to arise. While exhorting her son to be himself, which in her perspective is to not give in to peer pressure and get “hooked on drugs, marijuana, and alcohol,” she also reimposes the morals and beliefs that she raised him with, which, like the peer pressure, is an outside force seeking to impact and mold who he is and how he conducts his life. It comes down to Frank to decide whether his drug use is due to outside influence or because of his own independent desire and volition. Like him, we are receiving scripts from the culture, the media, family, friends, workplace, and countless other spheres of our lives that mold us and inform how we perceive ourselves and behave in public and private; and depending on our context, we behave differently by inhibiting certain parts of our personalities while waxing others.
Frank Ocean then makes a genius move by placing “Solo” immediately after “Be Yourself,” which poignantly displays the tension between these formative scripts against each other and against his sense of self. While he drops us into a number of snapshots of this tension, two particularly strike me.
The first comes from the second verse:
White leaf on my boxers, green leaf turn to vapors for the low/ And that mean cheap, ’cause ain’t shit free and I know it/ Even love ain’t, ’cause this nut cost, that clinic killed my soul/ But you gotta hit the p***y raw though
While the calming effects of weed can be attained easily and for a small price, the momentary but intense pleasure of unprotected sex is infinitely costlier when an unwanted child is accidentally conceived and the decision is made to abort. For Frank, whether he or a composite character is speaking, the aborting of a child, the extinguishing of a life before it could even fully enter the world, rends the soul and is crippling to the core. Though while the possibility of these circumstances to arise is far more likely with unprotected sex, self-control seems impossible – it seems to be a part of his true nature, something that he feels it is impossible to erase or disregard. He knows that it is dangerous and wrong to take such a risk and oppose his moral character in this manner, but his desire wins out over his conscience.
And the second comes from the chorus:
It’s hell on Earth and the city’s on fire/ Inhale, inhale there’s heaven/ There’s a bull and a matador dueling in the sky/ Inhale, in hell there’s heaven
Within the context of the track, I envision him lying by himself outside, gazing at the stars and smoking weed in order to escape the stress and brokenhearted pain from a failed relationship.
The bull and the matador are references to the constellations of Orion and Taurus. And for him in that moment, their duel (note the homonym) on one level represents the conflicting emotions regarding his use of weed. He was raised with the beliefs that using drugs is sinful and the road to Hell, but the way it makes him feel is like escaping to Heaven. So he is left with a sense of shame or judgment but also the honest truth that it helps him flee from his current turmoil. Just as Orion and Taurus are perpetually posed in opposition toward each other, these two scripts embedded in his psyche are always struggling for dominance. And yet, it also seems as the album progresses, he vocalizes an increasing disillusionment of materialism, sensuality, and moral tradition.
So how can all this be reconciled? How do we decide what deserves a voice in who we are in our current 21st century context? An exploration of Frank Ocean’s answer to those questions can be found at Part 2 here.
Listen to Blonde on Spotify: