“My guy pretty like a girl/ and he got fight stories to tell/ I see on both sides like Chanel/ I see on both sides like Chanel”

(Photo courtesy of dejonshepard on Flickr Creative Commons)

If you’ve heard Frank Ocean’s latest single, “Chanel,” (listen below) chances are you’re not just reading those lyrics, you’re singing them in your head with Frank’s effortless yet undeniable rhythmic inflections. With that rhythm, with the bouce and the tug he applies to his lines, he takes his lyrics and makes them music.

This song sounds similar to listening to the sub-genre of hip-hop popularized this decade, labeled “mumble-rap” by old school purists. But what Frank does on “Chanel” transcends that characterization. Migos and Young Thug, perhaps the kings of “mumble-rap,” tend to utilize grunts, gutturals and ad-libs to convey a wide range of emotions, sometimes completely ignoring words altogether. Young Thug has even stated that he does not speak english. But Frank’s words are perfectly decipherable.

“Mumble-rap” has indeed completely energized hip-hop in a way that has made it more interesting, exciting and deep. No longer can rappers lay down simple rhyme schemes and pretentious lyrics and demand respect (sorry, J. Cole). Hell, Thugga has the aura of a spirit bomb, the most vibrant we have seen since prime Andre 3000.

Young Thug. (Photo courtesy of raphael thriller on Flickr Creative Commons)

But guess what, Frank’s is even more interesting. His aura is just as inwardly deep as it is extending, as dark and obscure as it is vivid. Listening to his music is like if you could listen to a black hole, you cannot help gravitating toward it. But what makes what he is doing so massive?

Well, did you pay attention the first line of the song?

“My guy pretty like a girl”

Whoa.

Frank’s words ring clear like a bell. Well, more melancholy, perhaps like a death toll. The influence “mumble-rap” has on this song is evident, it is the catchiest opening line since “Rain drop/ drop top,” but he utters everything for us to understand completely. Sometimes he tiptoes around the words, sometimes he spits them in our faces and sometimes he just lies down right on top of them.  What Frank does with his words here, how he taps into their being and changes their nature, making them one with the music…it is hard not to compare to what Jesus did with the water at the Marriage at Cana.

A comparison to Jesus? Frankly, it’s fitting.

When was the last time we saw such a revolutionary figure willing to question and ultimately restructure societal expectations? I mean, he released what will probably be one of the biggest hip-hop songs of the year, and the first line directly references a homosexual relationship. In fact, the whole song is an assertion of his bisexuality.

If you listen to this song more than twice, you will not be able to help humming “I see both sides like Chanel” in your head. That is right, you will be repeating over and over a line that proclaims against the heteronormative that dominates hip-hop. But he takes care not to over do it. His verses range from examining the struggles of his fluid sexuality, “Got one that’s straight acting/ Turnt out like some dirty plastic (Ride),” to clever pop culture references, “With a cup in a cup, Actavis/ That’s a double edge, issa knife,” to braggadocios, “Can’t you see I am the big man? (Big man)/ God level I am the I am (whoa).” He easily intertwines his progressive message with everything else that makes hip-hop cool.

On top of normalizing his bisexuality in the most hip-hop way possible, Ocean played the song’s release like a puppet. The official tune came out early March 10. Hours later, a remix of it featuring A$AP Rocky appeared on Soundcloud. It would seem that such a power-hitting feature could be enough for a headline itself, but instead it was almost instantly forgotten. There is no doubt that Ocean did this on purpose. He wanted his voice to carry the weight of the song, without interference or distractions. Rocky’s verse at the end of the remix provided just enough validation of the song’s message from hip-hop’s inner circle. But because the remix was really not much more than an afterthought, Frank remained the clear central figure.

So what is the point of all of this, anyway? Well, anyone who has been a fan of Frank Ocean has experienced this timeline:

2o11:

“Nostalgia, Ultra” comes out. Holy crap, this guy is good. I want to hear more!

2012:

“Channel Orange” is released. This man is a god. He could be the most important pop/hip-hop artist of our generation.

2013:

Man, I wished Frank Ocean would release an album this year.

2014:

Did Frank disappear?

2015:

???

2016:

Frank releases two lengthy, incredible projects, but they are overtly inaccessible and obviously bogged down in his psyche.

Which brings us to the beginning of this year. Most were resigned to the fact that it would be 13 more years until we get another Frank Ocean project. But then, out of the blue:

Feb. 24, 2017:

“Slide” is released. A Frank Ocean song with…who? Calvin Harris??

Never before had it been such a relief that a genuine artist teamed up with a mediocre pop-radio musician. Maybe, after all, Frank Ocean is a human who is willing to make the kind of music for which the world yearns.

And then, BAM:

Mar. 10, 2017:

“Chanel” makes its world debut, and is exactly what everyone wants.

Not knocking “Blonde” or “Endless” at all. Both are extremely deep, meaningful and incredible projects. But neither reach the level of listenability that “Chanel” has. This listenability is necessary, especially when you are asking a large portion of your listeners to restructure their perspectives of society.

But what this timeline really illustrates is the big question mark hovering over Frank Ocean’s career. He has proven his capability. He can infuse his progressivism and unique perspective into incredibly accessible albums like “Channel Orange” and songs like “Chanel,” but is he willing? Will he keep blessing us with music like this, or will he disappear for years into his internal struggles? I guess the real question is, “Is Frank Ocean ready to be the cultural icon we desperately want him to be?”

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