Ocean’s latest channels black existentialism, a 20th-century philosophy with a remarkably contemporary outlook on the social and political underpinnings of experience.
By Elena Gooray
Frank Ocean performs during the 2014 Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in Manchester, Tennessee. (Photo: Jason Merritt/Getty Images)
Frank Ocean’s Blond(e) is at once a multimedia project that could only exist in 2016 and an album indebted to history. Like this year’s Lemonade by Beyonce or Views by Drake, Blond(e), released late last month, dropped initially on a single platform (Apple Music) as a multimedia event (accompanied by the 45-minute visual album Endless and magazine Boys Don’t Cry); like its peers in the trendy “surprise album” genre, the exact release date was unannounced and yet its arrival was highly anticipated, following over a year of social-media hype. The work itself, however, telegraphs as distinctly historical: It echoes an over 100-year history of black existentialism, a philosophy that fundamentally embraces differences in human experience.
Black existentialism, which originated in African-diaspora scholarship, analyzes how black Americans, grappling with slavery’s legacy, experience their country through multiple identities. This is different than the 20th-century French existentialism traditionally taught in high school; while Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre examined the supposedly universalplight of humans who take personal responsibility for their choices in a world where the rules of right and wrong are not totally defined, black existentialism imagines that people don’t all share the same experiences — and that history and politics play a crucialrole in defining those experiences.
Ocean’s new releases similarly depict life from multiple viewpoints, particularly exploring his personal identities — Ocean is black (or, as he puts it on Blond(e)’s “Futura Free,” “Africano Americano”) and sexually fluid, as nodded to on tracks like “Good Guy.” But Blond(e) imagines otherAmerican experiences too: It samples different American artistic traditions, alternately riffing on “Close to You,” a hit from 1970s California pop stars The Carpenters, and Texas gospel music (“Godspeed”). The result endorses how different identities shape Americans’ experience of their country — a bold statement in a year when, more than ever, politicians in the United States are evangelizing Americans’ common ground.
Scholars have long recognized that being black in America raises unique existential questions. Both black and white writers of the 20th century, the philosopher Lewis Gordon has noted, acknowledged that black Americans were cut off from a “universal” experience in the U.S. the moment they were labeled slaves — and marked as sub-human. But for black existentialists in particular, “struggles with imperialism and racism,” wrote the sociologist Paget Henry in Gordon’s anthology, became “the dominant factors in our attitudes toward existence.”
Black American existentialists believe existence is tied to political and historical context. W.E.B. Du Bois, writing before the genre of “black existentialism” formally existed, coined a term that has particularly informed its scholarship: In a 1897 article for TheAtlantic, Du Boiswrote that black Americans are forced to view themselves through the critical eyes of others. Du Bois called this phenomenon “double-consciousness” — the moment-to-moment awareness of being both American and black. Choosing between those identities — the American identity, and membership to a cultural minority that Americans in power have historically oppressed—can, as black existentialists explore, fundamentally clash.
On Blond(e), Oceanconfronts the experience of multiple identities from the album’s very cover. Ocean has released two versions of the same album — his website is selling a version called Blond, whereas Apple Music has produced one called Blonde — which some fans have interpreted as a gender-bending statement. In French, blond is the masculine version of the noun, or as an adjective describes masculine nouns, whereas blonde is feminine and precedes feminine nouns (some writers also observe this distinction in English). A number of Blond(e)’s songs, in turn — especially “Self Control” and “Nights” — detail love and lust for people whose gender Ocean leaves open-ended. His lyrics reflect a commitment to sharing relatable experiences that transcend labels of sexuality, which, as he toldGQ in 2012, are things “you can’t feel.”
In part, Ocean’s work reflects the broader, 20th-century European existentialist tradition. With songs that contain messages of abstract melancholy recalling the writings of Sartre and Richard Wright, Ocean’s work hasbeencalled “existential” before. His lyrics in his albums are often confessional and individualistic, and his inward-looking ethos has expanded to other projects too; his 2016 essays included first-person elegies for Prince and those killed in the Orlando shooting; his visual album, Endless, primarily shows him building a staircase alongside his own clone.
There is nothing of the politically disengaged artist in the video for “Nikes,” Blond(e)’s lead single.
This constant focus on his own inner world can portray Ocean as an existentialist artist-alien — someone floating outside the messy plane of American racial politics. Indeed, nothing in Blond(e)’s stream of heartache and drug-use ballads tackles identity issues head-on. The suffering of which Ocean sings — declarations like “You could have held my hand through this, baby” — more immediately resembles the pop language of “Here, My Dear” by Marvin Gaye than, say, essays in Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk (or even Gaye’s own protest music, like “What’s Going On”).
But there is nothing of the politically disengaged artist in the video for “Nikes,” Blond(e)’s lead single. While he declares R.I.P.’s for lives lost and ends with one for Trayvon Martin, Ocean holds a picture of Martin wearing a hoodie and grants a single look at the camera — the only one in the video, and in all 45 minutes of Ocean’s visual album Endless—while also wearing a hoodie. The 17-year-old black American who was shot and killed in 2012, Ocean sings, “look just like me.”
The frame lasts a second. But it carries particular weight following years when discussion of police violence committed against black Americans like Martin, has entered the mainstream — most recently with the Department of Justice’s report last month that found that the Baltimore Police Department has aggressively stopped primarily black city residents, often without reasonable suspicion, in the last five and a half years. As Ocean ruptures his video’s fourth wall, he nods at the reality that his actual existence is at risk in America simply because he is black. Here, the “Nikes” video couldn’t be more straightforward: Black people in America experience very particular risks.
It isn’t the only moment in his latest releases that Ocean acknowledges differences between identities: He questions his obsession with cars as a “subconscious straight-boy fantasy” in his zine Boys Don’t Cry, and in “Good Guy” on Blond(e), he sings the word “gay” — the first time he has on any of his three albums. The overall effect is that, in a way more explicit than in Ocean’s previous releases and interviews, Blond(e) embodies all kinds of identities, while rebuking the idea that they can be easily collapsed into one consciousness.
In some circles, this endorsement of difference could be perceived to be damaging, even unpatriotic, in a year when polls have shown American voters increasingly recognize the country to be divided and pundits have fretted over these divisions. Indeed, this year’s two major presidential candidates have either attacked or glossed over distinct social realities for different communities in America. Presidential candidate Donald Trump, for instance, released a campaign advertisement last month identifying Syrian refugees and illegal immigrants as threats to American safety, demonizing cultural and ethnic difference; Hillary Clinton acknowledged systemic racism in her speech accepting the Democratic presidential nomination, but her overall message focused on nationalist unity, and sidestepped talk of concrete solutions that address the fact that, economically and racially, there is no single American experience.
Listeners, though, don’t seem to be dissuaded by Ocean’s acknowledgment of divisions in America.His play with contradictory identities is topping charts (Blond(e) currently ranks No. 1 on Billboard’s Top200 Albums list),as it counters politicians’ nationalist rhetoric.The project’s statement seems perfectly timed to counterbalance talk of one prevailing American identity: Like the tradition of black existentialism, Blond(e) offers hope in letting go of the myth of that common American individual. When Ocean sings in the last verse of “Nikes,” “We’ll let you guys prophesy, we gon’ see the future first,” his “we”doesn’t claim to speak for everybody. That recognition of difference isn’t a problem to be solved, as it is for this year’s presidential candidates — it’s an acceptance of diversity not as a buzzword, but as a fact of American cultural history.