After a self-induced sexual liberation coupled with subsequent first week sales of over 130,000 of his Channel Orange album, Frank Ocean is music’s most unexpected and enigmatic new star. His Tumblr announcement regarding his sexuality launched a thousand headlines and has forced hip-hop to discuss, if not altogether reshape, its ethos on homosexuality and as such, expectations around the oft-reticent singer have increased exponentially.
Last night at NYC’s Terminal 5, amid a sold-out crowd that included singer John Legend and Odd Future members Tyler, The Creator, and Earl Sweatshirt, Frank Ocean proved more than capable of carrying on R&B’s long dormant torch.
He began with a symbolic invocation, performing a stripped down acoustic version of Sade’s “By Your Side.” Adorned in his signature red and white bandana and accompanied by a small, yet adept, instrumental section of drums and guitar, Frank went into a crisp, hour-plus set of material from his Nostalgia, Ultra and Channel Orange as well as extraneous cuts like Watch The Throne’s “Made In America.” As he “time traveled” between numbers, his vocals were remarkably stronger than their reputation and his sweet timbre and falsettos audibly matched his records (“He sounds just like the album,” mused one onlooker).
From the uproarious response to Internet favorites like “Thinkin’ Bout You,” “Swim Good” and “Novacane,” it was clear how integral the digital landscape has been in cultivating the ardent, mostly twenty-something fans in attendance. “I’m not gonna ask If you got it legally or illegally,” Frank playfully said about Channel Orange before jumping into the summery “Sweet Life.” A man of little onstage banter, it was one of his few communicative moments.
One of the night’s most interesting and ultimately, heartbreaking observations was the unspoken reaction to some of the music. Songs with lyrics involving women such as “Novacane” and “Pyramids” received overwhelming response by women and men alike while those that crossed gender lines like “Forrest Gump” and “Bad Religion” generated hesitation in some male fans.
In the latter, for instance, Frank achingly laments about loving a man who will not reciprocate as he sings, “I can never make him love me/Never make him love me.” During such numbers, some men were visibly grappling with how to enjoy the music while maintaining the stance of so-called masculinity; some sang happily verbatim while others skipped certain lyrics. The stigma and discomfort, even amid loyal fans, of how to receive bisexuality in R&B had not altogether ceased.
Maybe Frank knew that all along; he touched upon his declaration briefly but didn’t delve. “It was my life, you know,” he breezed and never came back to it. Like Sade, Frank is still the consummate singer and doesn’t try (or seem to want) the responsibility of celebrity or advocate. His candidness was honesty for his own sake and that newfound freedom glowed. “Big f**king thanks New York City,” he boyishly grinned in the end. Regardless of what anyone thought or expected, Frank Ocean was happy and clearly at peace.