Story of the Week: Reactions to Frank Ocean’s album

21.07.12 Words by: Charlie Jones

50 Cent’s response to Frank Ocean’s decision to share his experience of loving another man in a letter published on Tumblr prior to the release of his debut album has been largely reported on this week.

Partly, this is because 50 is himself notoriously homophobic, and so his statement of support for Frank – “anyone that has an issue with Frank Ocean is an idiot” – takes on a particular symbolism in the argument that the OFWGKTA singer’s honesty is a landmark in the “don’t ask, don’t tell” culture of hip hop and R&B. Many have marked out Frank’s letter as a turning point in the history of the genre, signifying a shift from hostility to universal acceptance.

This wasn’t all 50 Cent had to say on the matter, though. Speaking to MTV News UK, the rapper also commented, “It could be revolutionary or it could be a tragedy. You can call it brave or you can call it marketing, because it was intentional; it wasn’t an accident.”

He’s referring here to the worldwide success of Frank’s official debut album, Channel Orange, which this week became the first in UK chart history to debut in the Top 20 based solely on digital downloads, after it was released a week early on iTunes.

New York rapper Mysonne made the same controversial point in an interview with VladTV this week, stating, “I felt that the timing…made it real suspect to me. Oh, now you wait until your album’s about to drop?”

Hostility is evidently still present in these rappers’ attitudes towards the singer, whether or not it is connected directly to his sexuality; despite the general positivity that has come from the revelatory Tumblr post, it seems that there are at least a few voices of dissent mumbling softly within the industry, as some believe that Frank’s letter may have been a well-placed gimmick designed to inject life into album sales.

Christian Clancy, Frank’s manager, in conversation with Billboard this week, quashed this idea by asserting that the release strategy of the album and the letter’s publication were all down to Frank himself, and all part of the performer’s natural “intuition”. Clancy emphasised, “Let’s not underestimate the fact that this is a guy who has done all of this with an iPhone and a Tumblr page. This is a guy who has the number-two album and number-one or two in 11 countries literally with an iPhone and a Tumblr page. Literally. I don’t want to take away anyone’s help, but when it comes down to what he has done it’s all come from his iPhone and Tumblr page and obviously the music right? It’s the antithesis of a campaign.”

The personality and immediacy of Frank’s connection with his audience, via unedited Twitter and Tumblr accounts and spontaneous, instantly-available digital downloads, does make it appear that his career arc is the antithesis of a campaign. It is important to recognise, though, that music doesn’t exist without context, and that this context of digital intimacy is as much of a marketing strategy as any other, even if what it is selling is Frank and his own, pure creative vision.

However, Keith Caulfield, associate director of charts at Billboard, made a critical point when he told the Guardian last week, “On the one hand, it’s good, it brings people to his music who may have never listened to it previously…On the other hand, maybe there are some people who are not enticed to purchase the album since his revelation, but we don’t really know that for sure.”

When Frank posted the letter for the world to read, he had no way of knowing for sure whether it would affect his album sales or not; whether it would ignite his popularity, or cause it to fizzle out. All he could possibly have known was that, in that moment, he wanted to share this personal piece of information with his rapt audience. To release the letter after the album, only to create a quantifiable spike or fall in album sales that would be exhaustively analysed by the media, would only make it seem more inextricably tied to marketing; to release the letter as an understated page in the album sleeve, as originally planned, would perhaps have made the point less strongly than its author was hoping.

The language of the letter itself revolves around that which is inevitable, transcendent, larger than life, suggesting that the point Frank wanted to make was one that he saw as bigger than himself, and bigger than album sales. Humans spinning in blackness; screaming out for a creator; love as a malignant, unreasonable force. The expression of all these themes is the crucial, heartbreaking core of Channel Orange; unrequited love, and the hopelessness and powerlessness that come with it. Frank ends the letter with, “I feel like a free man. If I listen closely…I can hear the sky falling too.” The last time he used the phrase “sky falling”, it was in a track called ‘Quickly’, in which he begged the listener to love him before the sky fell, and the world ended. This sense of something impending, something looming, remains throughout this letter and throughout Channel Orange, both of which are urgent, desperate acts of creativity, screaming out to the clouds.

What’s truly ground-breakingly, sky-fallingly great about Channel Orange is not the statement on sexuality made by its creator, but the statement on life and love that it, in itself, was created to be. In the stunning letter, Ocean wrote that he was trying to “channel” his overwhelming emotions; this channelling is the refreshing, radical element that makes Channel Orange such a blazing success, as within its bars, Frank Ocean makes his emotions more accessible, arguably, than any R&B or hip hop star’s emotions ever have been before. This is what makes the listener love the music, this is what helps them to step inside. Whether or not the letter had been published, this truthfulness would remain ingrained in this creative moment in Frank Ocean’s life, and career; the vulnerability that comes with this kind of openness means that regardless of what gets uploaded on to a Tumblr page, Ocean was always making himself susceptible to the sting of critical, cynical voices – to call such a move “marketing” seems inadequate, cynical and sad. 50 Cent suggests that the other thing we could call it is “brave”; I’d settle for that.

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