Is Frank Ocean Overrated?
Out of all the songs Frank Ocean could have performed on the Grammys, he choose “Forrest Gump.”
I’m not a huge fan of Ocean but I do like him. However, it is becoming increasingly harder and harder to defend him from the growing and legitimate chorus of folks, who wonder what the big deal is about him? I mean damn Ocean, you have tracks like “Pyramids” – okay, maybe that song might have been too long for a performance. However there is also “Sweet Life,” “Pilot Jones” and even “Super Rich Kids,” which to me has super crossover appeal. But Forrest Gump? Sorry, that was just a poor song choice – for the Grammys as well as the Channel Orange album.
And unfortunately for Ocean bad song choices like “Forrest Gump” is yielding himself to some very stiff criticism about if he is deserving of all the praises he has received in the industry. In the article, Is the Frank Ocean coronation premature?” Noel Murray writes:
“Full disclosure: I think Channel Orange is a good album, but I don’t think it’s a great one. It didn’t make my Top 15 albums list of 2012, nor did any song from it make my “Top 40 songs from albums not on my Top 15” list. I spent much of last year trying to love Channel Orange, but the record never took hold. I’m a fan of vintage pop and R&B, and generally like hearing people work within the traditions of the old while courting the cutting-edge, as Frank Ocean does. But while several songs from Channel Orange hit that sweet spot for me—in particular “Sweet Life,” which best exemplifies Ocean’s gift for wistful scene-setting—too much of the album sounds sketchy to me. I don’t think Ocean is a strong vocalist, and I think many of his observations about wealth, sex, and drugs are thuddingly obvious, however well-written.”
This is not the first article as of late, which has asked the same question. In the article, Frank Ocean is Boring: The Year Lifeless Music Found Critical Praise, Chris Chafin says that Ocean has “drained the sexiness and excitement out of R&B.” He writes,
“Channel Orange is listless in the extreme. On several tracks, Ocean seems barely to be keeping himself awake behind the microphone. That’s when you can actually hear his voice, which is often buried under layers of production. It’s hard to tell if this is intentional, or if Ocean is just unable to muster the strength to sing louder than his beats, no matter how much his producers turn them down.”
Unfortunately I have to agree. But for every underdeveloped (or in some cases overproduced) songs like “Lost,” “Pink Matters” or “Sierra Leone,” there are some really sophisticated gems like “Monk” and “Thinking About You,” which is why I can’t totally write him off. Overall, it is a not a classic album but pretty damn solid. However, I do believe that there was a lot of undo expectations put onto Ocean, which might not have been warranted. And this might have more to do with his reception within the industry than the music itself. Originally, there was this spirit among some critics and music writers of wanting to see this kid win. He was black, male, alternative and of has a questionable sexuality. This, according to most critics and music writers, made him an enigma in a musical (i.e. black) culture, which is largely regarded as being homophobic. The Washington Post determined that he was a game changer and music veterans like Jermaine Dupri christened him the savior of R&B. Not to mention that his six Grammy nominations pretty much solidified him among the top-tier of today’s musical artists. In essence, Ocean has become the musical version of Barack Obama, sent here to challenge and progress black music forward. And he has enough fans among critics eager to sell that including Pitchfork Magazine, which gave Channel Orange a very controversial 9.5 rating.
The thing is, though, if critics and music writers really wanted to endear themselves to a more eclectic and sexually diverse version of black music, there was really no need to create a savior in Ocean as there were already black LGBTQ artists already blazing trials on the black music scene. A few weeks ago, I was chatting with this really nice woman at a sewing party I went to. While we cut the patterns for the tights we were making, she asked me if I was going to go see Big Freedia, who had a upcoming show in city. I said no because I had no idea who a Big Freedia was. She paused, perhaps trying to find a way to explain Freedia (while also gauging my level of comfort with the LGBTQ community), and then told me that Big Freedia was a transgender artist, who is very popular within the bounce hip-hop music scene. She put on some of her music for me to get just a taste. I’ve been listening rather frequently ever since.
I won’t even insult your intelligence with a poor retelling of bounce music history because as I said, I just began familiarizing myself with the genre fairly recently. However, here is a New York Times article from a few years ago and a clip from a film, which documents the rise of the genre of music that was born out of the gay slums of New Orleans and features an appearance by Mannie Fresh from the group The Hot Boyz. What’s interesting to note is that while hip-hop as a culture has been infamously perceived as unwelcoming to homosexuality, a charge that I won’t necessarily dispute, this however doesn’t mean that there has not always been artists, who have been able to maneuver through those terrains and to create a receptive space for themselves within the genre. Folks like Sylvester, Meshell Ndegeocello and Rahsaan Patterson have all been able to find audiences within the black community. Is that kind of reception the norm? No, but a large part of the major reason why is that many of the same music critics and fans, much of whom act as the gatekeepers to what ultimately becomes the next best thing in music, don’t afford the same pedestals and opportunities to be change-agents in music to these artists, which has been given to the likes of Ocean.
What makes Ocean different is that he is pretty safe and comfortable for the masses. His sexuality, while alternative to the hyper-heterosexual landscape of Hip-Hop and R&B is not as flamboyant, brash and loud as say a Big Freedia or any of her bounce music counterparts. There is no threat of black booties, whether they be from the bodies of gay, straight or otherwise, twerking it out to a Frank Ocean song. As Chafin of the Village Voice noted, he is R&B without the actual sexiness.