August 29th, 2016
Frank Ocean just came out with his new long-awaited and highly-anticipated album, Blond, which debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 chart. One track—the song “Be Yourself”—features an apparently real-life voicemail from a woman who identifies herself as “Mom,” instructing the listener to, well, be themselves. She also offers advice about drugs, and an inadvertently nuanced attitude to medical marijuana (even as she warns against becoming a “weed-head”).
The effect, coming from Ocean, is both tongue-in-cheek (regarding abstaining from drugs), and heartbreakingly earnest, in terms of how he’s led his life both artistically and personally. Ocean has persisted in “being himself” in the face of demanding critics, labels, fans and the world of hip hop and fame.
Ocean released his new album independently—accompanied by a visual album, Endless, and a zine: Boys Don’t Cry—after four years of frustrated fans and media hounding him for a follow-up to his Grammy Award-winning debut, Channel Orange.
Musically, critics have written that this new album “bends genre, bends gender, and bends time,” and that “Blonde is queer in the word’s truest sense: nonconforming, elusive, boundless. It celebrates the intangible, the strange. It doesn’t play by the rules.”
On a personal level, the singer has said that his sexuality is “dynamic” and he’s become the de facto queer icon of the traditionally hyper-masculine and homophobic world of hip-hop.
The voicemail is reportedly spoken by Rosie Watson, the mother of one of Ocean’s childhood friends. It opens with the words:
“Many college students have gone to college and gotten hooked on drugs, marijuana, and alcohol. Listen, stop trying to be somebody else. Don’t try to be someone else. Be yourself and know that that’s good enough. Don’t try to be someone else.”
She does repeat some stereotypes about marijuana use, like:
“When people become weed-heads they become sluggish, lazy, stupid and unconcerned. Sluggish, lazy, stupid and unconcerned. That’s all marijuana does to you, okay? This is Mom.”
Tell that to Michael Phelps.
But she also seems to appreciate that marijuana can be used medically, and even seems to subtly advocate for legalization: She cautions the listener against weed “unless you’re taking it under doctor’s, umm, control,” she says. “Then it’s regulated.”
The album has other, more explicit, political moments too. At Ebony, Frank Leon Roberts, a black history professor at NYU, refers to “Nikes,” the album’s opening track, on which Ocean sings: “RIP Trayvon, that nigga look just like me.”
Roberts calls the songs on the album “movement-lullabies” for Black Lives Matter, and says that they are even more a part of BLM for their radical queerness:
“It is a movement concerned with creating safe spaces for all Black people, not simply cisgendered, heterosexual Black men. Part of what makes Endless and Blonde politically relevant, is that the music resonates (in terms of themes, featured-guest artists, and story-lines) with two constituencies that have been of special importance to the legacy of the BLM movement: Black women and queer folk. Thus, Ocean’s two new albums symbolically offers a sonic safe-space for the articulation of Black experiences that go beyond simply the heterosexual male norm.”