Why Frank Ocean Still Won’t Wear Your Labels

November 21st, 2012

(Photo: Island Def Jam Recordings)

By Gee King

What is the difference between artists like Andre 3000, Kanye West and Jay-Z — who hold fans’ attention as well as they hold the beat — and the countless other musicians whose careers sputter through the predictable cycle of stardom and irrelevance? While the latter group allows themselves to be defined and categorized by fans and media for easy consumption, the greats define themselves on their own terms. When GQ’s Amy Wallace asked Frank Ocean to define his sexuality in the men’s magazine’s “Men of the Year” feature, she was testing the 25-year-old’s artistic gangsta. And while his cryptic answer surely frustrated fans that simply wanted deeper insight into his lyrics, and validated skeptics who still see his revelation about his sexuality as a publicity stunt, Frank proved his dedication to true artistry and foreshadowed a career with its best creativity still to come.

As Andre shifted from pimp, to alien to revolutionary, fans resisted at every turn. Kanye’s growth from producer to God MC to fashion icon was met more by mocking laughter than acceptance. And each step that Jay-Z took from the corner to boardroom was questioned from every angle. Who do they think they are? Like Frank Ocean, they knew the whole time. And, like Frank, they weren’t about to let the fears of those watching their evolution create doubt. Their knowing wasn’t the product of rational thought or logic. It was a belief in their selves and the power of their expression that allowed them to continue on their path. It was their refusal to let fans and media tell them who and what they had to be to be accepted.

“As a creator,” Frank told GQ, “I’m giving you my experiences. But just take what I give you. You ain’t got to pry beyond that. I’m giving you what I feel like you can feel.” While fans claim to know what they want, Frank’s response proves he knows them better than they know themselves. But it also suggests that their lack of self-awareness makes it impossible to truly understand his. It is our nature as humans to want to place things into neat categories that require less conscious thought for understanding. But as Frank said in his response, “You can’t feel a label.” And as soon as you’re presented with one, your mind begins wandering in search of the truth that’s too big to fit into the box or genre placed neatly in front of you.

Fans think they want to know everything about their favorite artists because they believe it will lead to the true meaning of their art. But the laws of the art world only require truthful expression of emotion, not complete transparency. There’s a reason they don’t hang pieces of glass in museums. It’s the same reason those artists claiming to be real are happy to jump into boxes that could never fully contain a real human. No one will ever know the full truth about himself or herself. Those claiming to know are no realer than the labels they happily mix and match in search of acceptance. But those willing to seek that truth, with full knowledge that they may never truly find it, are the ones we will follow beyond fifteen minutes. Clearly, Frank wasn’t lying when he said he’s thinking ’bout forever.

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