I spent much of my boyhood plumbing the depths of masculinity in locker rooms. Filmed over with dirt, sweat, and trails of AXE spray, their walls boxed in the visions of maleness I faded into. During flickers of my becoming, I gave form to the loose concoction of boy-stuffs that splattered the surfaces. By some instinctive reflex, I parroted the brazen older boys who taught me to define maleness against displays of vulnerability: here, a broadening of my shoulders; there, an unfeeling homophobic slur; and everywhere, a compulsive vacuuming of tears into my purple fringed skull. The dry-eyed boys hazily echoed a sound that bled into and made the walls throb and thrum, a script of machismo that primed our brocabulary: hip-hop.
The hip-hop collective of the moment was Odd Future. More than any other artist at the time, the group exteriorized what access to the Internet helped bubble inside many of us: a marriage of carnal curiosity and nihilistic freakishness. Their lyrical content was everything our parents had nightmares about and then some. It spanned drug-addled bouts of sacrilege or suburban terrorism and referenced pop culture’s biggest stars in deranged sexual fantasies. Each escapade was narrated with the desensitized drone of someone resigned to his own hormonal chamber. In retrospect, I might label them as a team of net-savvy iconoclasts who baited both my generation’s fascination with all things absurd and the stereotypes of black masculinity that made our parents object to the cultural ascendance of hip-hop. At the time, they felt just like us. The numbness with which they recounted freakish behaviors mirrored the unflinching gazes my friends and I dared each other to hold as we gathered around to watch absurd videos on the Internet. We were all performing our masculinity—using fictional or virtual spaces to stretch the limits of our toughness.
As the members of Odd Future matured, so did the themes of many of their works. One of the group’s flagship members, Frank Ocean, expressed an empathetic and dynamic masculinity that was unlike anything I had seen from other hip-hop and R&B artists. On his crowning achievement, “Pyramids,” off solo debut “channel ORANGE,” he created a sonic cosmos of his own where “Cymbals[/symbols] crash … voices fill up the halls.” The production blended funk grooves with electro-house synths, a John Mayer guitar solo with 90s slow jam R&B. The lyrics braided vulnerable male subjects of desire: the former lover of the Egyptian pharaoh Cleopatra seeking to reclaim his lost jewel and a modern pimp pleading for his prostitute to make love with him before she leaves. Songs like these convinced me that Ocean was prophetic. His narratives tapped into feelings and insights that I could only make sense of by gradually threading them into the fabric of my own life, leaving room for additional layers to pile on as I matured. His music became a reference point for my identity: a source of stability and grace amidst flux and tension; a way to measure my growth as the wide-eyed joys of boyhood gave way to adult introspection and confusion.
Three days before I became a legal adult, Ocean announced that he had two versions of an album he was prepared to release in July 2015. The potential title for the project was “Boys Don’t Cry,” a reference to The Cure that I found strange since Ocean’s music is a far cry from gothic rock. Stripped of context, the title sounded like a defunct aphorism. My grandfather might have told my father to hold back his tears, but my father was now expected to tell me that boys do cry and that I should address rather than suppress my feelings. Perhaps I was overestimating the extent to which progressive attitudes about gender had seeped into our cultural consciousness. But why would a sexually fluid black artist—one who is often a canvas onto which critics and fans beam intersectional ideas about identity—suggest a movement backwards?
July passed and Ocean offered neither an album nor a public statement about the status of his music. I did my best to disregard the ensuing Internet buzz, believing that Ocean’s creative process should be disentangled from the pressures musicians confront in the age of streaming and click-bait music journalism. As much as I believed this theory, I dreamed on the thought that maybe Ocean would drop an emotional anchor to ground me during my first year at Harvard. Soon after freshman year began that August, I found myself dizzied in a whirl of doubt. I was trying to process too much too quickly: how a confluence of awareness and privilege could result in so much inertia; what my responsibilities as someone who can pass as male and straight are; what a healthy form of solitude might look like; and whether or not it means anything to be a man. I was searching for a male role model who could help answer these questions—a friend who could offer an intimacy and thoughtfulness that deference to the bro code and accepted standards of coolness did not provide.
Though I never fully resolved my questions or found a mold of masculinity that I could fit snugly into like the skin-tight tank tops the gym boys wore, I made it through the year with the help of a few wonderful friends and a lot of Prince. On July 2, a cryptic note appeared on Ocean’s official website: a library card with a list of dates, the last of which was July 2016, and the words “Boys Don’t Cry” at the bottom. The Internet erupted into a kind of hysteria unlike anything I had seen in music before. Artists and members of the music industry teased fake news about the album, blogs shared detailed timelines of all relevant information, and fans formulated theories about potential release dates. When July ended and no Ocean album was to be found, the uproar took on a darker and more critical tone. One merely had to glance at a Frank Ocean thread on Reddit to get a taste of how incensed his fans were. Their comments resembled the stuff of trauma: a callousness that accrues over time to shield vulnerable feelings.
The buried, obverse side of the junk–saturated web reared its pretty head within days after Ocean released the surprise visual album “Endless” and the entrée album “Blond(e)” in late August. Now featured on the artist’s main thread on Reddit was a “Blond(e)” discussion forum that contained a slew of heartfelt personal anecdotes about how users’ feelings and romantic lives related to Ocean’s songs. Most users wrote from a male perspective and sported Reddit-bro certified names like “SackWrinkley” or “LETS_TOUCH_MUFFS.” Although some of their memoirs were interrupted by meme-inspired jests like “my dick is out” or “Lit™,” their reflections came across as remarkably sincere. One user admitted to being a “lurker” who never posts, and another claimed that Ocean accessed feelings he forgot he even had. The thread gave the impression that its anonymity had birthed an intimacy that may very well be absent in male-dominated physical spaces.
This intimacy also owes much to the introspective aesthetic that Ocean crafted on “Blond(e).” While most of R&B derives its propulsion from drum machines or synths, the thrust of “Blond(e)” is Ocean’s voice. One might be tempted to draw comparisons to a folk album, but “Blond(e)” lacks the stability that a folk singer provides, since Ocean’s voice is repeatedly pitch-shifted or dispersed through a Prismizer to mirror the album’s clouding of identity. “Blond(e),” however, does echo folk’s use of open space and softness, a stylistic feature emblematic of the work of art pop virtuoso Brian Eno. Eno, who is listed in the album’s credits, proposed that abandoning traditional rhythmic structures could allow “voices to exist in their own space and time, like events in a landscape.” Eno’s analogy could be an apt description of “Blond(e),” only the album is focalized around the events of Ocean’s own mental landscape: a fleeting stay “In the halls of [someone’s] hotel” in “Ivy”; the lopsided date at a gay bar in “Good Guy”; the nights when Tyler, The Creator slept on his sofa in “Futura Free.” Ocean drifts in and out of moments and places, striving to cohere his many selves who each sought to live “so the last night feels like a past life” (“Nikes”), to “see Nirvana, but [not] die yet” (“Nights”), and to “Say what up to life immortality” (“Pink + White”). Ocean once said that his art is an attempt to “make a photograph out of something that you can never see.” In that vein, “Blond(e),” like the photograph on the album cover, is a portrait of Ocean’s vulnerable self, an attempt to make visible the immensity of emotion and personality that a single moment can hold, to sculpt from memory a portrait that exists in its own space and time.
Many initial reactions to “Blond(e)” were torn about its personal specificity. Some expected Ocean to use his swelling platform to make a declarative political statement à la Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly” or D’Angelo’s “Black Messiah,” perhaps through his own sonic (wo)manifesto of intersectionality. In an implicit sense, Ocean did reify our dynamic beliefs about gender and race. He recontextualized the works of white canonical rock artists like The Beatles and Gang of Four. He toppled the macho mythos surrounding automobiles by displaying them as spaces of vulnerability and turning their parts into homoerotic objects in the glitter-drenched video for “Nikes.” In the same video, he foregrounds black, multiracial, maternal, and androgynous bodies, and embellishes them with glitter or paint until their race or gender seems less a referent for identity than an aesthetic property that evokes wonder. Above all, he performed an inward turn in the face of the industrial and messianic pressures that try to pigeonhole black and queer brilliance. That “Blond(e)” was self-released and is ineligible for consideration at the Grammy awards speaks volumes about its purpose. It renounces the supremacy of a system that so often underrepresents the voices that Ocean labors to humanize. It provides a space for the listener to perform a similar inward turn, to reflect with a patience that has been stamped out by the flurry of new streaming services and the cursor-happy velocity of the music blogosphere.
Ocean’s inward turn, however, is not reflected on definite or fully transparent terms. From his silence in the midst of unprecedented hype to the cryptic live stream of “Endless,” Ocean seems to take solace in haze and quietude. His repose is a refreshing counterpoint to the click-bait bravado and performances of certainty that typify many masculine constructions of online identities, especially those of male celebrities. The near implosions of Kanye and Trump—booming social media personalities—are testimony to how fragility and instability can be masked and normalized by the delight we gain from their meme-able eruptions. Ocean’s persona aside, his music is its own antidote to paternal arrogance, since it stirs the conscience more than it spoon-feeds solutions. On “Solo,” a song rich with homophones, he constructs something akin to an antithetic parallelism in poetry between the first and second verses. He begins the first verse asking for a towel and tripping on LSD, and starts the second verse skipping showers and wishing he were intoxicated. He ends the first verse with the company of a lover but without marijuana, declaring he got his act right, and concludes the second verse with marijuana but without a lover, wishing he got his act right. Whether he is with a lover or high off a substance, Ocean might be solo or so low. Despite the song’s familiar and tight verse/chorus structure, “Solo” carries with it a thread of uncertainty that leaves room for the listener to fill its interstices with their own reflections.
A few months after the bustle about “Blond(e)” died down, I was walking through Harvard Square, blanketed by the long-familiar incandescent glow of Cambridge street lights and the now-familiar sound of “White Ferrari.” I saw tears glitter down the face of a boy my age who was dolled up in a plush suit. His body trickled gently out of the walls of a building that belongs to one of the most affluent and exclusive all-male organizations in the world. I wanted to preach to him about how he had frittered away his emotion, money, and time auditioning for a vanishing play, an act that could only assert whatever eminence it had left by pulling the wool over our eyes with symbolic gestures of wealth and status.
Suddenly, I felt as if I understood the allure of the play. It was what I was chasing in locker rooms, what my friends sought in our shared spectatorship of the perverse web, what each Harvard student felt upon the day of admission. It was the tug of a validation that could shatter our insides into speckles of joy, wipe away our physical limitations so we could harmonize with a vision of ourselves we barely understood but knew everyone loved. To look down upon the boy’s pain was to prolong the paternal arrogance I was struggling to wrest from the sturdy hands of habit. Though I could not hear the song of the boy's cry, Ocean’s voice was soft, luminous, unburdening: “Mind over matter is magic … / You dream of walls that hold us imprisoned / It’s just a skull, least that’s what they call it / And we’re free to roam.”
I looked up at the night sky, hoping the sound would let me drift above my body, wondering if its immaterial truths were scattered somewhere up in the unseen purple rain where Prince’s doves were crying. I could not flow out of my own matter in tune with the notes I was hearing, but what “White Ferrari” made me feel in that moment was—is—enough. I felt as if a part of me were emerging not from dirt and sweat and AXE spray but from glitter and tears and Ocean’s androgynous tenor. As if the two clusters were non-oppositional. As if the dovetail that held them together warmly caressed and flickered a gliding dream: a vision of a masculinity of unremitting variety. A vision that could crystallize the scattered glitter and the evaporating boy-tears in a photograph that hovers beyond sight and soars into the walls’ endless echoes of pain to cry out its song of redemption: mind over matter—magic.