Cynicism is a growing phenomenon in music. True love songs are hard to come by these days. Deriving its name from Rihanna’s “We Found Love,” Yellow Diamonds is a series of lyric breakdowns in which VIBE Senior Music Editor Austin Williams celebrates songs that sound like love found in a hopeless mainstream.
Having grown up on 8701 and Confessions, Usher has always been my favorite R&B artist. By the time I was in college, nearly a decade after his prime, I began to do what most music nerds do once they enter adulthood: I made a habit of comparing my newer obsessions to the ones that defined my childhood. An example of this is the case I once made for Frank Ocean’s “Forrest Gump,” a softly written queer love song that changed the way I, an aspirant writer, thought about the language of romantic affection.
When I think of my fondness for “Forrest Gump,” and my fascination with Frank Ocean in general, I recall a particular conversation I had in 2012 with one of my best friends, a DJ whose taste was and still is more traditional than mine. During this conversation, I drew a comparison between Usher and Ocean, a blog-era sensation who previously earned a living writing for R&B archetypes not dissimilar to the “Nice & Slow” singer. To illustrate how impressed I was with Ocean’s track, I noted the songwriter-turned-superstar possessed talents even my King of R&B wasn’t blessed with.
“Frank Ocean could have written any song in Usher’s discography,” I argued, “but Usher could never write a song like ‘Forrest Gump.’” To which my friend replied, with a hint of hetero machismo unkind to Ocean’s choice of muse, “Usher would never write a song like ‘Forrest Gump.’” It was at that moment I knew despite Usher being my favorite R&B artist, Frank Ocean was my favorite R&B songwriter.
Inspired by the 1994 film of the same name, “Forrest Gump” finds Frank Ocean writing from the perspective of Forrest’s love interest, Jenny Curran. Months after Ocean premiered the song at Coachella in April 2012, he officially came out in a Tumblr post that July, revealing a past attraction to a young man who didn’t reciprocate his feelings. That experience underscored much of the writing on his debut album, Channel Orange.
To this day, what strikes me most about “Forrest Gump” is it’s less subtle than “Thinkin Bout You” in its expression of Ocean’s queerness, and it feels more optimistic than “Bad Religion” in its outlook on potentially unrequited love. Flipping the narrative of the film, the song imagines Jenny as the one consumed by a crush. In doing so, it’s the rare song in Ocean’s discography that doesn’t address feelings of uncertainty with a sense of despair. From the sentimental twang of its guitar licks to the playful bops in its 808s, the song captures the hopeful innocence of wondering if someone likes you back. This is especially true of its lyrics, beginning with its chorus:
My fingertips and my lips
They burn from the cigarettes
You run my mind, boy
Running on my mind, boy
The first half of this chorus establishes a sort of non-sensual physicality that’s present throughout the rest of the track, referring to lips and fingertips in a way that subverts how those body parts are usually described in most other love songs.
In the film, Jenny is a smoker and Forrest hates the smell of cigarettes, though that doesn’t deter his pursuit of her love. In Ocean’s song, in which it can be assumed he’s playing a male version of Jenny, his smoking feels more reflective, as it’s paired with a longing for someone he can’t stop thinking about. “You run my mind, boy” is both a reference to the running Forrest does throughout the movie and an expression of Ocean’s infatuation.
I know you, Forrest
I know you wouldn’t hurt a beetle
But you’re so buff and so strong
I’m nervous, Forrest
With another non-sensual image of physicality, the first verse now focuses on Forrest’s body instead of Jenny’s. By contrasting Forrest’s gentle nature with his intimidating strength and stature, these lyrics effectively convey the feeling of loving someone who could cripple you with their rejection.
I saw your game, Forrest
I was screaming, “Run forty-four”
But you kept running past the end zone
Oh, where’d you go, Forrest?
The set of lyrics most directly tied to the film, the song’s second verse imagines a scene in which Jenny attends one of Forrest’s college football games. Whereas in the movie there’s no one special to watch Forrest play aside from touchdown-hungry fans and a coach who considers him “the stupidest son of a bi**ch alive,” Ocean writes from the perspective of a swooning admirer there to support his man.
Forrest green, Forrest blues
I’m remembering you
If this is love, I know it’s true
I won’t forget you
Toward the end of Forrest Gump, the titular character, who’s developmentally disabled, asks Jenny to marry him. When Jenny seems hesitant to agree, Forrest, played by Tom Hanks, delivers my favorite lines of the movie: “Why don’t you love me, Jenny? I’m not a smart man, but I know what love is.” He then walks out the front door feeling defeated.
For a moment, about 45 seconds of the film’s runtime, what follows is the saddest part of the movie in my opinion, as Jenny’s rejection of Forrest feels confirmed. Ultimately, she enters his room later that night, climbs into his bed, and admits she loves him too. In the final verse of Frank Ocean’s song, he reimagines that 45-second limbo as something far less excruciating. As he sings, “If this is love, I know it’s true/ I won’t forget you,” there’s a tenderness that’s stayed with me for the past ten years.
As I aged into adulthood, I began to seek out music I related to over songs that simply sounded good. While Usher’s Confessions-era classics about cheating and being cheated on will always be an R&B standard for me (“Truth Hurts” is incredible), in 2012 and beyond, what I related to most was wondering if I’d ever find someone who liked me as much as I liked them.
While other songs have described this feeling more forcefully, including ones by Ocean himself, none of them were written in a way that dared to imagine romantic affection as something that’d continue whether it was returned or not. “Forrest Gump” does this with a sensitivity that only Frank Ocean has ever truly mastered.