On Self-Reliance: Frank Ocean as Emersonian Hero

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The Internet indulged in a collective swoon over Frank Ocean’s two releases, Blonde and Endless, last summer. And why not? His albums are undeniably beautiful and slippery and unexpected in all the ways you hope music that evades genre might be1. But Frank Ocean’s music, as pleasurable as it is, is probably not the most interesting thing about the singer-songwriter. I believe a large part of our preoccupation with Ocean is found in the frustrations that he concocts (whether intentionally or not) for fans and co-workers alike. To dub Ocean a headache to work with, as some have done, or as unlikable, as Ocean himself has implied, is unfair. Sure, Ocean leaks false release dates, drops his own version of songs he wrote for other singers the day before their release, and keeps those he works with in a state of feverish uncertainty. But “unlikable” isn’t correct: Ocean is not unlikable so much as he is a modern Emersonian hero.

Unroll your eyes for a second. I know, I know. With bombastic statements like “modern Emersonian hero” I’m aligning myself with every hot-blooded Internet writer who lost their shit over the new records and referred to Ocean as an “auteur” or a “visionary.” But all the same—who else, aside from Ocean, could be referred to in those terms?

For me, essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson and Ocean most closely overlap in Emerson’s “Self Reliance.” What could be a more accurate description of what makes Ocean so unique than one of the essay’s opening lines? “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men,—that is genius.”

Isn’t that the beauty of Channel Orange, Ocean’s ultra-specific 2012 album? While the fictional stories in songs like “Sierra Leone” or “Crack Rock” suggest we shouldn’t fall into the trap of listening to it as a purely confessional album, Ocean’s unwavering confidence that every tiny detail of life that holds his interest would be fascinating to others feels like an audio echo of the quote above: his friend’s mom’s convincing assertion that actually, yes, money equals happiness; the protagonist’s girlfriend’s habit of smoking in his flat (“What if my mother comes over?”); and the six-inch heels the stripper wears feel quintessentially Ocean. His music is always confident that the close-up holds as much appeal for everyone else as him.

But I’m fudging. This isn’t the heart of the matter. This, perhaps, is: “Great works of art have no more affecting lesson for us than this. They teach us to abide by our spontaneous impression with good-humored inflexibility then most when the whole cry of voices is on the other side.”

What could be a better example of “good-humored inflexibility” than how Ocean chooses to release his records? Forget the pressure to cobble together a second release as quickly as possible to cash in on the adulation surrounding your first, and employ maximum subterfuge as concerns dates. With regards to the second point, he’s been accused of being as vague as possible on release dates to generate a certain mystery, but actually, if you go way back to Channel Orange, you’ll find he’s been open about the reason behind all the ducking and dodging from the beginning. In a phone interview Ocean had with BBC Radio 1’s Zane Lowe to push Channel Orange, Ocean explains he announced a release date that was a week later than the real one because, “I kind of wanted to mirror what Jay and Kanye did with Watch the Throne,” before going on to explain that the early digital release was planned “all along” to avoid a leak. In an era of major music piracy, Ocean’s sticking to what he knows. Obfuscation with dates means more probability of a stable paycheck.

But release dates aren’t the only thing Ocean refuses to adhere to a clear linear model with. When Emerson dubs consistency “the hobgoblin of little minds,” you can’t help but think of Ocean. The only consistent aspect of Ocean’s music career—which has seen him zigzag from commercial songwriter for the likes of Justin Bieber to rising star in the cartoonishly obnoxious Odd Future to heavyweight solo artist—has been inconsistency itself. Ocean is luminously unafraid of disappointing others and fucking up established narratives surrounding him in order to make art or commentary that reflects what Emerson calls in “Self-Reliance,” “the integrity of your own mind.” This is probably the most radical aspect of Ocean’s work and public persona; while he’s happy to star in adverts for Calvin Klein and drop songs about Nike, he’s never going to bother with conscious brand-building for himself. One obvious example of the latter is his sexuality.

Ocean’s gone from forming part of a group that, despite working with lesbian producer Syd tha Kyd, made homophobic slurs on the regular, to describing his unrequited love for a man via letter on Tumblr in 2012, to refusing to let anyone apply one clear label to his sexuality. In an interview in GQ, when asked if he was bisexual, he said:

You can move to the next question. I’ll respectfully say that life is dynamic and comes along with dynamic experiences, and the same sentiment that I have towards genres of music, I have towards a lot of labels and bos and shit. I’m in this business to be creative—I’ll even diminish it and say to be a content provider. One of the pieces of content that I’m for fuck sure not giving is porn videos. I’m not a centerfold. I’m not trying to sell you sex. People should pay attention to that in the letter: I didn’t need to label it for it to have impact.

Later, Ocean would publish a moving text about discrimination against the queer community on his Tumblr in which he states “Many hate us and wish we didn’t exist.” Once again, Ocean’s flipping the narrative. He’s refusing to be categorized but equally refusing to distance himself from the LGBT movement on the basis of not wanting to be labelled. Perhaps the beauty of Ocean’s response is that absolutely nobody can profit from Ocean’s sexuality—gay rights groups can’t precisely herald him as an out ‘n proud musician, but homophobes can’t claim him as one of their own, either.

Maybe what’s difficult about Ocean is that we’re so unused to people being true to themselves, 24/7. You might not always agree with what that coworker from accounting says about another colleague at lunch but you’ll often affect a smile and a nod to get through the day. But when Emerson defines “the healthy attitude of human nature” as “[t]he nonchalance of boys who are sure of a dinner, and would disdain as much as a lord to do or say aught to conciliate one” it’s hard not to think of the princely Ocean, who has never seemed to demonstrate the requisite forelock-tugging you might associate with getting a start in the industry. One thinks of his humble beginnings in LA when he shifted from making sandwiches at Subway to starting to write songs. Even at this precarious stage, when you’d expect a certain level of networking and making nice, he was already the Frank Ocean we know. In his 2013 New York Times interview he describes how “I had a problem listening to A-and-R’s telling me how a song was supposed to sound, or what this artist’s vibe was.” In the same article, the journalist quotes Barry Weiss, the CEO of the label that released Channel Orange, Def Jam, as saying Ocean was “so bullish and so optimistic and so confident about the album that he was creating that he had his representatives call us up and say that he deserves a lot more money”—Ocean’s negotiations landed him what Ocean has claimed was $1 million for a “[v]irtually album-unheard, sight-unseen” album. Sounds about right.

The irony of all this is that, as Emerson recognizes, someone who couldn’t care less about how they come across is all the more charismatic and convincing. Emerson talks of an honor developed by carving out your own path regardless of external opinion: “We love it and pay it homage, because it is not a trap for our love and homage, but is self-dependent, self-derived, and therefore of an old immaculate pedigree, even if shown in a young person.” Reddit didn’t obsess about Ocean’s release-date dipshittery earlier this year because it hates Ocean, but because, like most of us, it’s in love with him. It’s the same vibe that person you went on two dates with and forgot to text back gives off when you run into them at a party. They want you more because they know you’re not consciously rejecting them; your priorities are just elsewhere.

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And maybe that’s why it’s hard to believe that Blonde’s answering machine track “Be Yourself” is actually what it seems like on first listen: ostensibly an anti-drugs tirade from his mother. This is because so much of the monologue’s lyrics don’t sound so much like Ocean’s mother, Katonya Breaux Riley, as pure Frank Ocean: “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 act like someone else. Be yourself, be secure with yourself. Rely and trust upon your own decisions and your own beliefs.” The lines function as a less-highfalutin version of “Self-Reliance,” preaching that an Emersonian view on personal relations isn’t just good, but essential.

And perhaps this is why we’re not just obsessed by Ocean’s music, but Frank Ocean himself. Often, following celebrities on social media means their inauthenticity spawns your own: peeping Taylor Swift’s Fourth of July bash, for example, might inspire you to coordinate and photoshoot your next big group hang in a similarly aesthetically appealing manner. But Ocean’s the exception to this. His easy comfort with being “difficult” forces the fan to scrutinize their own behavior and their own inauthenticity. Just like Emerson, Ocean isn’t afraid to challenge his audience to be themselves, no matter how hostile a response that might prompt. So I’d argue it wasn’t Blonde that was Ocean’s gift to his fans, but the four-year wait. After all, it was this long silence, not the album, which drove home that Ocean would create art exactly how he wanted to on his own schedule, just like you should be doing. And what’s a more valuable gift than that?

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1. This is important. While Ocean occasionally gets categorized as “contemporary R&B” and if left to my own devices, I’d definitely be heading for that phrase, he’s clarified on at least two occasions that he’s opposed to genre. Given his distaste for labels, I guess this isn’t really surprising.

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Image credits: featured image, image one (© Michael Mayren).


Sophie Atkinson is a freelance writer based in Berlin and is the co-founder of DADDY, an online magazine that aims to be that most tricky of things, funny about tough issues. She's been published in Dazed, VICE Germany, The Toast, The Billfold, High Snobiety and Minor Literatures, amongst other places. Despite the number of writer bios that being published in the above entails, referring to herself in the third person never gets less weird. More from this author →