VIBE's 2012 Man Of The Year: Frank Ocean

Frank Ocean may dodge the spotlight, but with the push of his poignant pen, the R&B recluse became a leader of men and women, lost and found. VIBE replays the anti-star’s groundbreaking 2012

By Clover Hope

Amid the hyperboles and endless opines, the Internet often offers the greatest insight. Under a 15-minute YouTube clip of a 2011 Hot 97 interview with Frank Ocean, there’s this comment: “I’m trying to understand him, his vision, his music and he’s not letting me,” writes stlukesroosevelt1. “That’s great!!” Almost every synopsis of Frank, the 24-year-old singer-songwriter who’s either gay or bisexual, fixates on his ambiguity. This year, he’s done exactly four public interviews for his Def Jam debut, Channel Orange, including The New York Times—where he described his slumped posture as a protective “outer shell” for his true self, the one we know mostly through his music—and the obscure French magazine Snatch, which called him “un personnage hors-norme” (“a non-standard character”), in an article titled “The Abyss of Frank Ocean.” You could say he’s not a star, or the most reluctant we’ve seen in years. The fact is that Frank, an artist who relishes white noise, has ignited a voluminous conversation in pop culture with little volume.

The chatter began with his 2011 mixtape, Nostalgia Ultra, accelerating in early July after listening sessions for the morose Channel Orange. Rumors that the man born Christopher Breaux planned to come out bisexual flew amuck when a BBC journalist noted: “On the songs ‘Bad Religion,’ ‘Pink Matter and ‘Forrest Gump,’ you can hear him sing about being in love and there are quite obvious words used like ‘him’ and not ‘her.’” The hear say compelled Frank to post a diary entry-like letter to Tumblr—aptly on Independence Day (originally typed on Dec. 27, 2011)—about his first love with a man. The emotions were complex but the admissions simple: “I was 19. He was too.”

With 730 words that trumped everyone else’s actions, Frank became The Man in a 2012 that saw Nicki Minaj prefix her name with “American Idol judge” and frequent collaborator Jay-Z clock in a lifetime’s work (open a stadium, launch a music festival, host the Obamas) in a single month. Remarkable feats, sure, but no other entertainer sparked a more vital dialogue this year than Frank. His same-sex revelation gave Black music a belated progressive push while enticing more (deserved) interest in Channel Orange. Next to today’s leaderless genre of R&B, which spews more molly music than true blues, Ocean’s body of work feels like a necessary anomaly. “It’s similar to Radiohead or an artist you discover and really get into the visual that music provides,” says Akinah Rahmaan, Def Jam’s VP of Marketing. “His music takes people away on a journey. Every song is a story.”

To cynics, Frank’s viral reveal was a PR stunt. The truth is it was a defining moment. “That was not a conspiracy or created to sell albums,” assures Rahmaan. “We didn’t know how he’d be received. When we saw the positive results of him freeing himself and being that candid and vulnerable, we supported him.” Days later, the U.K.’s The Guardian snagged the first interview where Frank addressed his penetrating love letter. “He seemed a little shell-shocked by all the attention, but he was surprisingly willing to talk about it,” says deputy editor Rebecca Nicholson. “I suggested that writing that letter was brave. He disagreed. It was astoundingly modest of him. He’s a smart guy and he’s got a lot to say, but he says it quietly and calmly. Which I think shows great confidence. He was incredibly Zen.”

Many pegged the act as Frank’s “coming out” and rushed to parse its impact (Daily Beast’s “Frank Ocean’s Coming Out as Bisexual Changes Homophobic Hip-Hop Genre”; Time’s “Coming Out In Hip Hop: Frank Ocean’s Powerful Moment”). Others tiptoed and stressed that he only mentioned “that one time.” On July 9, he made his first post-Tumblr appearance on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, a gig booked two months pre-letter. After a brief huddle, he and Roots frontman Questlove settled on performing “Bad Religion”—a confessional ode to “him.” “The plan was to make a huge impact by word of mouth, but his [letter] obviously changed that,” says Late Night music booker Jonathan Cohen of Frank’s TV debut. “Every now and then, we’re lucky enough to be present in the studio for a moment like that, where there’s sort of an air of uncertainty in the room. It was one of the best performances we’ve had this year, if not in the history of the show.”

There, in front of 1.75 million viewers, one week ahead of schedule, Frank announced the iTunes-exclusive release of Channel Orange, a debut that’s as courageously innovative and individualistic as its author and certified Frank as Mr. 2012. Even with compelling, if somewhat wobbly, sets at the MTV Video Music Awards and Saturday Night Live, Ocean’s promotional push seemed more like cautious steps into the spotlight. “He’s an artist’s artist,” says Cohen. “He’s still processing how to handle the sudden attention and the best way to move his career forward. The sky is the limit for him. It’s just a question of how comfortable he is with playing the game.”

Four days after the letter, @Frank_Ocean passed the million-follower milestone. “Last summer I had 1600 followers,” he tweeted. Add that to breakthrough shows at Coachella and Lollapalooza, epic collabos with Pharrell Williams (“Sweet Life”) and Andre 3000 (“Pink Matter”), an invitation to open for Coldplay and an album that’s sold roughly 400,000 copies and you have a Man of the Year who’s as necessary to our forward movement as he is mysterious. “His image is brooding, sensitive. His tweets are obscure. In my opinion, that’s as much of a construct as Lady Gaga’s eccentric art-house showgirl,” says Nicholson. “That doesn’t make it insincere or dishonest, by the way. I just think it works for him.”

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