– PRIDE MONTH 2020 –
The apartment was empty.
None of Gwen’s pots rumbled on the stove, and Dania wasn’t holding any conversation in their living room. The sun shone through the window––in their haste to leave, none of the trio had thought to close the blinds, and keep the sun from discoloring the art on the walls. It was, on this hot summer evening, quiet at home.
The streets were not quiet. Protests across the country had flamed every night for nearly three weeks, met with violent responses from government forces and police squads. Images of burned-out storefronts and activists washing pepper spray from their faces had filled every social media timeline, to a degree never seen before in the modern political age. The last few years had been an impossibly stressful time, the conscience of the country bending to accommodate the strain being put onto it. But, at least to the other protesters who shared the street with Gwen, Eleanor, and Dania––at least to them, the dam had finally burst.
So the apartment was empty.
Empty of people. The furniture still sat, patiently. The books on the shelf would be read again, eventually. The coats would be worn again, once the summer died and the chill of winter returned. But in the sticky maw of a June rebellion, the coats hung discarded on hooks in the silent apartment.
Sitting atop the coffee table, above bills and books, sat a CD case. It had been a while since Eleanor had physically picked up an album––the ease and immediacy of digital download suited her better. But she’d wanted to order something from a black-owned business, and felt it better suited the gesture to complete the transaction face-to-face, rather than knowing that the ones and zeros transferring her money were landing in the savings account of a person of color.
Eleanor had listened to Frank Ocean’s album Blonde when it came out––she’d lived within walking distance of one of pop-up shops where the album had been made available, and the hype of many friends led her to becoming quite familiar with the album’s heavy synth charms. Many nights had been accompanied by the album, “Nikes” and “Pink + White” punctuating the conversation.
She’d never picked up Ocean’s first album, the critically acclaimed channel ORANGE, from 2012. She’d heard some discussion that it was more lyrically complex than Blonde, although the production and arrangement of the latter album was seen as more impressive. Either way, at a time when black lives were fighting for justice, in conversation with the politics of Pride Month, Ocean’s album felt like the correct choice to lift up.
But the apartment was empty.
It hadn’t been, weeks ago. In the early days of the protest, they’d supported the movement in ways they deemed helpful. Donations, of course, were action that mattered––a step beyond the posting on social media, a drop in the deluge of reminders about the injustices enacted on the street, the bubble of their friends and colleagues all in agreement about the issue outside their view.
They’d ordered from black-owned businesses, had food delivered from black-owned restaurants, amplified the voices of their black friends and activists who seemed to advocate the right actions, until those actions were later deemed ineffective.
And Eleanor had listened to channel ORANGE. First on her own––the album’s production unveiled its secrets to the discerning listener, someone who would wear bulky headphones and unpack each twist of the album’s synth and rhythms. With the exception of the nine-minute odyssey “Pyramids,” none of the songs felt like music to hear in clubs. Even then, “Pyramids” only fit the description for its first half, before the lyrical turn from ancient history to the present day. The pace dropped back to the summery drawl of the rest of the album, and the lyrics painted a much bleaker, more pitiable picture than the opening rave.
Most of the songs fell into that languid groove. Ocean had an uncanny ability to combine hard-hitting beats with softly groaning vocals, to mimic the sense that the listener was being dragged along, gently prodded to follow Ocean through his cunning explorations of sexuality and isolation. The measured piano backing to “Super Rich Kids” demanded attention, but the slowly unspooling lyrics, and the washed-out images of excess that they painted, kept the song from lying easy on the ear. A pillow-soft exterior, with a bed of nails underneath––that was Frank Ocean.
But the apartment was empty.
Eleanor had hear the album’s opening single before, the wildly popular “Thinkin Bout You.” A tornado flew around my room before you came / excuse the mess it made, it usually doesn’t rain… It wasn’t that Eleanor hadn’t considered the unique sadness of the lyrics before. That element was obvious, even decoupled from the context of the album. She hadn’t even stopped to consider the gender of the recipient of the song. Male, female, or anything else––the passion of the song came through regardless. What surprised her, then, listening to the song as a part of the larger album, was the realization that, perhaps, even Ocean didn’t quite know the recipient’s gender.
On the Fourth of July prior to channel ORANGE‘s release, Frank Ocean posted a now-famous open letter on Tumblr, revealing himself to be bisexual. It was a daring move, in a time when celebrities coming out as gay retained its novelty––a time before Bank of America sponsored parade floats, or an Iraq veteran became the first gay candidate to win a presidential primary. The reveal colored the various expressions of lust and longing on the album, which waved between overtly female lovers in “Pilot Jones” and “Lost,” to the clearly male subjects of “Forrest Gump” and “Bad Religion.”
“Bad Religion,” one of the most accessible songs with the least-coded lyrics, was Eleanor’s favorite track on the album. Just under three minutes, the song traced a painful journey for Ocean, as he struggled with a male figure who’s love he couldn’t earn. Was the figure a lover? God? Himself? Eleanor knew that the answers––were there answers––wouldn’t be found on the album.
Similar syntactical switching happened in “Pink Matter,” both among the gendered pronouns but also between the colors of pink and blue, gender coded hues that claimed different halves of the song. An opening about the pink matter, which called back to the pink “skies” of the earlier track “Sierra Leone,” parted to allow the “blue matter” of Ocean’s unclear sexuality to shine through. It was a wrestling match with oneself, a brilliant lyrical knot that Eleanor had given up attempting to untie. The cord itself was the artistry, a product of Ocean’s own weaving.
But the apartment was empty.
Eleanor played the album for Dania and Gwen, and in the process learned that she was the only member of the three who hadn’t listened to channel ORANGE when it premiered. Dania shared that her own uncertainty regarding sexuality was the cause for her initial interest, although she’d failed to find footholds in the dense lyrics and had instead often fallen asleep to the album’s surreal tones. She’d selected “Sweet Life” as her favorite upon release, but had grown closer to “Super Rich Kids” as time went on. There was a subtlety to Ocean’s critique of the lifestyle, Dania argued. A sense of turning the camera back onto the powerful, and exposing their lives for the artifice that it was.
That wasn’t how Dania had phrased it, but Eleanor had interpolated the meaning.
Gwen felt similarly about “Super Rich Kids,” though she’d pushed back against Dania’s assertion that the message was in any way subtle. Gwen’s thesis on the album, having found appropriate leverage to scale the peaks of Ocean’s poetry, centered on the idea of isolation: “love and wealth are both sold to us as tools to avoid isolation,” Gwen explained. “But both can cause isolation, too. ‘Sweet Life’ is all about how money that should provide access to the whole world instead encourages cocooning up by the beach. Love, which should set Ocean free, instead locks him in a taxi cab as he unpacks his entire upbringing in ‘Bad Religion.'”
Eleanor had pointed out that race, of course––of course––had the potential for freedom and isolation as well. While only “Pyramids” made direct mention of the plight of black Americans, the rest of the songs were indivisible from the experience. As with everything, the impact of race ran so deeply, so fundamentally though Ocean’s music that there may have been a temptation to consider the music free of its presence. But it was there––not in the lyrics, always, but in the issues being discussed and the method by which they were accessed. Always.
But the apartment was empty.
The conversation had turned further circles around channel ORANGE, around Frank Ocean’s synesthesia that gave the album its dreamlike title, around the distant hum of radio and TV sound that framed the album, around the further echoes of Ocean’s early work that blossomed on Blonde and the visual album Endless.
But the apartment was empty. Talk wouldn’t do what action would.
And so the CD lay in the sun, the cover blanching, while down a city street in the early twilight three women in masks held up signs, held up hands, held up their fellow activists. For all those who could not hold themselves.
Image Source: Genius
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