"Frank Ocean and the Elephant"
by Shelly Bell
Author, Songwriter, Poet
The lights go down, the crowd screams, the 9:30 Club, Washington, D.C., is again successful at packing the room with a diverse audience of live music lovers. The air is curious and comfortable, as I imagine the crowd was like prior to Maxwell’s episode of MTV Unplugged, just in a less intimate space. Arriving after 7 p.m. is never a good idea at this venue especially when the artist is Frank Ocean and his recent “coming out” story has made him the poster child for homosexual Hip Hop artists at a time when homosexual is the hippest thing to be. My tardiness positioned me in the back right corner of the room. As I scanned the crowd I imagined that I was not the only person secretly evaluating the sexuality of the people around me. I imagined that I was not the only person in the room questioning whether the fanfare was sincere towards talent or support for his so-called brave expression of being “himself.”
Frank Ocean’s writing ability is undeniable. As a vocalist, however, his voice is a cross between Keith Sweat’s whine and Akon’s tone, and lacking vocal range. Opening with Sade’s “By Your Side,” it was a smooth familiar way to start the show. This was followed by “old” favorite “Thinking Bout You” which is slowly making its way into Top 40 radio rotation. As the average “hey girl come with me to the show” concert goer his choice of song position in his set was a bit boring for me. Every song sounded the same plus or minus a little bass.
The moment we had all been waiting for came suddenly, as he introduced the oft discussed tale of same-sex love,“Forrest Gump.” Saying “recently, I had to say some things so yea, this song is about that,” it was definitely questionable. I paused and thought the following:
“What? Frank are you telling us that you recently told your mother you hate her cooking or that you’re gay? What does “had to say some things” even mean?
The crowd screamed and cheered as if he had just confessed his sexual preference on stage. This is evidence that saying you’re gay has become a huge deal. He had to say something. This elephant is too huge to ignore. I’d heard the song once before, but didn’t realize that chorus uses the word “boy” regarding who he’s singing to. Interestingly enough, the men in the room responded to the song with frozen stares and stiff posture. There was this one guy directly in front of me who was rocking and dancing so hard to every song. I imagined that he was gay even if he wasn’t. This begs the question, will men be able to express themselves as fans of Frank Ocean without being considered gay?
Also performed were “Novocane,” “Swim Good,” and “Made in America” from Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch the Throne album. I was waiting for him to rock the crowd with call in response while singing the chorus to “No Church in the Wild.” That didn’t happen! He ended the night abruptly by singing a portion of “I Miss You” by Beyonce while playing the keyboard.
It’s difficult to produce great showmanship when you don’t really have any songs in the mainstream. Frank Ocean’s music is the music you know because you’re in the know about Hip Hop music. I dig the use of Frank Ocean’s voice, I dig the instrumentation in his music, and I am a fan of his writing. However, for now he should focus on developing his show from a homogenous batch of songs to a more entertaining set of musical stories.