Day Forty-Nine: Frank Ocean and Humanity at The Grammys

by Tom Noonan

The Awards Season is pretty much one giant, hulking bummer.  Over on Grantland, Steve Hyden summed up the problem perfectly, that “all reasonable, intelligent individuals agree that handing out trophies to famous people based on the votes of other famous people and their non-famous associates is sort of a stupid exercise, and has little or nothing to do with recognizing artistic merit”.  It has gotten to the point where, at the end of these richly embarrassing events, the discussion is refocused from who won awards to who won the event itself.  Tonight, Mumford and Sons won Best Album, but Frank Ocean won The Grammys.

Sure, he went home with two Grammys, but the categories he won in say more than the trophies themselves.  The first was a new category, “Best Urban Contemporary Album”, which sounds like, and pretty much is, a category created by white men for the uncomfortable space between Bruno Mars and Chief Keef.  Other than the moral victory over Chris Brown, this win, for Frank, didn’t solidify much.  The best “Urban” album isn’t something Frank Ocean had any interest in making.  channelORANGE operated outside the the barriers of urban narratives and at an immeasurably higher level than anyone else in the category.  The category was almost an insult to the album, imposing a limit on its thematic range.

The second Grammy Mr. Ocean won was for his collaboration with Jay-Z and Kanye West, “No Church in the Wild”.  His hook on the song made casual fans double-check their Spotify tags all while elevating himself, for that moment, to the level of heavy-hitting mammoths: misters Carter and West.  It’s a good win, and Jay gave Frank the mic to accept it, but this was also a fracture of the larger plot.  No one saw channelORANGE coming because no one really knew Frank.

The week channelORANGE came out, Mr. Ocean wrote the blog post, the most important prologue to any work of art in the social media age, talking about his first love, who happened to be a man.  Then his album hit, a diary of fragmented, beautifully told storylines and sparse, honest musings on public sexuality sprawled out for all to see and written in the technological language currently assaulting our senses.  channelORANGE was the pulse of 2012, an album caught in the inscrutable space between love and happiness, wealth and death, drugs and friends.  Structured in many ways like a Twitter timeline, Mr. Ocean’s album was able to dwell in ideas that concerned him and move quickly through those he had all figured out.

For everything channelORANGE is able to do, it’s two of the last three tracks that finally reveal the man at the center of all the digital scenery.  The first is the stream-of-Taxi-Cab-Confession-conciousness “Bad Religion”.  One of the shorter full cuts on the album, “Bad Religion” is Frank Ocean’s heart leaking from his chest.  Over a wavering organ, Mr. Ocean offers a confession placed in the hopelessness of rush hour traffic.  The ideas are never bigger than the man, and it’s all there in the textured croon when he sings, “I can’t trust no one”.  The biggest moment for this song extended away from its source and onto Jimmy Fallon’s stage.  Backed by The Roots, Frank deliberately turned his back on his albums lead single, “Thinking About You” for the far more explicit and naked confessional.  He stood alone, separated by lighting, on the same stage that his “fag”-spewing comrades found viral fame not too long before, and he was completely contained within himself, his lyrics a palpable extension of his soul.  The song choice was not about subverting expectations or campaigning; it was about presenting himself to the world, sexuality and all.  It wasn’t a show.  It was just Frank.

So tonight, at The Grammys, before finding out that he wouldn’t win Best Album, Frank Ocean gave the other song, a pop-heavy love song written for a man by a man, a spin in front of the whitest, most conservative corner of Awards Season.  When Frank stepped up to his keyboard and mic, wearing his signature headband, and it was clear that the only other people who would be joining him onstage appeared in the video playing behind him, Frank Ocean solidified everything.  In a world of Lennay Kekua’s, he claimed, and assumed, complete humanity.  He’s all real, or only half, but the half that’s running is the digital half.  Using a song that specifically subverts the great American film “Forrest Gump” in the same way “Brokeback Mountain” subverted The Western, Frank Ocean didn’t want to make a case for winning any bullshit titles.  Like always, he just wanted to be Frank.

So then Mumford and Sons won Best Album and said something vulgar to Adele in passing while Frank Ocean was left to suffer defeat backstage.  The Grammys followed Award Season convention and awarded an album that simply retreaded onto pop-folk formulas rather than a digital age masterpiece that, like its time, rejected the very idea of formula.  But familiarity is comforting, that’s what we’ve learned tonight.  It’s a good thing we have Frank Ocean, though, to remind us what exactly it is to be human, even if we’ll never award it.