Frank Ocean has taken the idea of rejecting labels to previously unthinkable extremes.
In the most literal sense, he self-released his debut mixtape in 2011 after getting fed up with his treatment by Def Jam. In 2016 he streamed a relatively lackluster “visual album” called Endless to technically fulfill that Def Jam contract, then less than a day later he self-released his acclaimed Blonde LP as a truly free artist.
After taking home two Grammy Awards for his official debut album Channel Orange, Frank rejected the significance of that “Grammy winner” label by withholding Blonde from submission to any categories in 2017, saying, “I’d rather this be my Colin Kaepernick moment.”
Frank rejected the Cooksey name he was given at birth, in doing so rejecting the father who abandoned him only to sue him years later with a frivolous slander claim.
Frank has consistently rejected labeling his sexuality, following the 2012 Tumblr post in which he famously opened up about his attraction to men.
Frank rejects being called an R&B singer. After his debut single “Novacane” received accolades for breaking new ground in R&B, Frank summed up his frustration with that loaded label to The Quietus: “If you’re a singer and you’re black, you’re an R&B artist. Period.”
Occasionally, Frank rejects being called a musician full stop. He told The Guardian in 2012, “It would be fucking legendary if I just made Channel Orange last year, then put out a best-selling novel next year, then, you know, designed an arena in Stockholm in 2014! I don’t know!” He put it more succinctly to the BBC: “I make pop culture.”
Frank Ocean has been called “a mirror to the millennial generation” (not just because he’s made an enemy of uber-boomer Don Henley, though that doesn’t hurt). If it’s true, it’s largely due to his absolute rejection of the labels through which previous generations have systematically wielded authority. Frank will not allow his creative expression to be defined by the old guard’s way of doing business; he will not accept meaningless honors from industry elites whose award shows prop up outdated power structures; he will not keep the name passed on to him by a patriarch who didn’t raise him; he will not allow society to tag him with one sexual identity or another; and he will rebuff any expectations, musical or otherwise, that his rabid fans might hold, no matter how much they plead (or boo Drake).
Frank has earned his position of power through his talent, focus and labor. His independent streak doesn’t seem to come from some broad, political vision of how the music industry or society ought to work – he’s doing what he feels is right for himself, because he doesn’t need to do otherwise. This creates an intense contradiction at the heart of Frank fandom. In rejecting all labels, Frank represents the authentic millennial ideal; yet in deifying Frank and what they want him to represent, his fans have created a new pack identity.
In a way, the cult of Frank represents what’s happening around the world as elites fall and their systems atrophy. There’s an initial sense of populist justice in watching old hierarchies crumble and hearing the voices of old gatekeepers fade. But the collapse of the elites creates a vacuum, and rather than an egalitarian utopia emerging, we’re seeing new tribes form around identity-centric dogma in an escalating war to define civilization’s new rules.
Frank Ocean is what he is because his music is exceptional. I don’t think Channel Orange and Blonde completely live up to their hype, but I’m not sure it’s fair to expect them to. Frank’s influence on the sound of popular music in the 2010s is undeniable, and his best tracks – “Novacane,” “Pyramids,” “Bad Religion” – are unimpeachable.
My favorite Frank song is “Ivy.” I don’t have any great reason why it should be more important or meaningful than any other song. It’s a quietly perfect guitar ballad, a humble, intimate gem that reveals Frank’s humanity. Ironically it’s his ability to express that humanity that’s transformed him into a superhuman idol, but I think that says less about Frank, or about millennials, than it says about the state of the world previous generations so brutally pillaged before giving to us. Frank Ocean shows us the possibility of an authentically human future that we might never see.