By Rob Markman
This week Frank Ocean made the decision to share a personal part of himself with fans, opening up about his sexuality and simultaneously sparking conversations about about how a non-heterosexual star fits into the hip-hop landscape.
Frank Ocean is a diverse artist. Not quite R&B, not quite hip-hop, Ocean truly exists in an alternative bubble that encompasses a little bit of everything. His breakout 2011 mixtape sampled from Coldplay and the Eagles, but because of his ties with the Odd Future collective and his collaborations with Jay-Z and Kanye West, Frank often gets lumped in with hip-hop by default and convenience.
So after Ocean’s open letter in which he revealed that his first love experience was with another man, many have been questioning whether hip-hop is ready for an openly non-heterosexual male star.
Paula Renfroe, editor in chief of Juicy magazine, believes that the current hip-hop generation has escaped the homophobic stigma that has been placed on rappers and rap fans of yesteryear. To her, it is simply a reflection of America’s evolving social scope. “Hip-hop also has grown, society as a whole has grown and that’s the beauty of hip-hop, it reflects our culture and our society,” she told MTV News on Friday (July 6).
Still, Vibe magazine editor in chief Jermaine Hall feels hip-hop still has some growing up to do. Ocean shares a commonality with the likes The Weeknd and Drake, artists who aren’t afraid to push musically boundaries or wear their emotions on their sleeves. Hall points directly to Drake when pondering whether or not hip-hop is ready to accept Frank Ocean for all that he is, because even when Drizzy, who is straight, expresses emotions, he is perceived as weak and receives a healthy amount of backlash online.
“The blogs will go at him — ‘Drake is gay, Aubrey’s gay’ — and no, he’s really not, he’s just in tune with his feelings,” Hall said. “So when I see stuff like that, I don’t know if hip-hop is 100 percent ready.”
Hall’s colleague Vibe magazine executive editor Datwon Thomas disagrees. He believes that Ocean’s exceptional talents can help reshape hip-hop’s status quo — and that co-signs from some of the game’s biggest trendsetters don’t hurt either. “It really has to be a situation with someone that the hip-hop community respects,” Thomas explained. “Outside of Odd Future, Jay-Z and Kanye, the biggest icons in hip-hop, living legends, they’ve accepted him already.”
Some feel that it is bigger than hip-hop, however. Jerry Portwood, executive editor of Out magazine, has a hard time categorizing Ocean. After all, he seldom raps, nor does he fit the mold of R&B prototypes like Trey Songz or Usher. “I think genres like this are really not important. I think really it’s pop music, it’s just popular culture,” he argued. “It’s just music, and because of that he doesn’t have to worry about it in the same way.”
Still, for all of his idiosyncrasies, thus far it has been the hip-hop generation who has embraced Ocean as an artist. After all, his debut album, Channel Orange, will be released on hip-hop’s flagship label, Def Jam Records.
Brian “B.Dot” Miller, content director for the widely popular blog site Rap Radar, points to past scandals involving Rick Ross, Lil Wayne and R. Kelly (an R&B singer also closely associated with hip-hop) as examples that this current hip-hop generation puts a premium on musical quality and not identity. Each of the aforementioned artists has gone through some type of scandal and yet they emerged as three of the culture’s most celebrated figures.
“I think hip-hop right now is a free-for-all. It doesn’t even matter. If the music is good, no one even cares, man,” Miller reasoned.
Does Frank Ocean’s recent admission change how you feel about the singer? Tell us in the comments.