Blonded: Frank Ocean and the Ethics of Ambiguous Genderism

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Christopher Lonny Edwin Breaux, better known as Frank Ocean, dropped his second studio album, Blonde, on August 20, 2016 after a four year, enigmatic hiatus coming off of his mainstream freshman release, Channel Orange. What emerged from that respite was nothing short of the expressionist, absurd, post-gender masterpiece dreamt of by the likes of philosopher Simone de Beauvoir. Beauvoir once asked, “What is woman?” But what, at the same time, is gender? In a non-binary world, this answer is no longer male or female; it means much, much more. To fully grasp such a loaded question we can rethink what gender, sex, love, and pleasure all mean to a fluid world through the lens of Breaux’s Blonde and Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex.

From Reddit User u/ghstly

As a quick crash-course in Beauvoir’s philosophy, the main thing you should know is she’s what we call an existentialist. This means she believes that people are, by nature, free. A lot of this freedom is realized through your individual perception. Unfortunately, this means—through multiple complicated avenues of philosophical logic—that you see people as objects and yourself as the only possible subject. This doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, just a natural person. Which is another thing existentialists believe we hate: the idea that we are one with nature.

That’s right, you’re horrified at the thought of your body and your bodily processes and eventual death—essentially, you hate the thought that you’re just a big, bald ape. We also hate our identity, and basically anything that limits our metaphysical freedom. We call these limitations in our human condition facticities. These natural limitations are burdens to our supposed existential freedom. We should also consider that nothing means anything and everything is hopeless and worthless; that is until, as existentialists insist, we assign value to our own life! Basically, since everything is meaningless, we can assign life’s meaning to anything we please because we are free.

Angela Weiss/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Okay, so now that we’ve settled the little problem of being free, let’s get into the music and genderism. As a footnote to those uninitiated within his music, Breaux came out (officially) as bisexual between the releases of Channel Orange (2012) and Blonde. What makes this so interesting to the topic of feminist theory—specifically in the context of Beauvoir’s The Second Sex—is the sexual and existential oppression of women somewhere between the state of being man (fully subject, fully human) and object (fully nature, non-human). The bisexual, “androgynous” man is of interest to this topic, especially one of such artistic merit as Breaux. We see traditional models and expectations morph into something left mostly unexplored once we introduce these ideas. Humans begin to fit somewhere more between the binary relationship than on either side. No man is fully man nor woman fully woman, humans exist to their fullest potentials of expression.

Image from “Nikes” video by Frank Ocean.

“Nikes” was the first and only single on Blonde. With a reverberating, snare filled instrumental, Breaux crafts a hedonistic ballad of loving lust; he enters confidently, wistfully singing in autotuned tenor, “These bitches want Nikes/ They lookin’ for a check/ tell ‘em it ain’t likely.” In a state where sex is money, what do we declare the object? Is money an object even though it is tied to the body? Ergo, would bodies be an object although tied to the subject? Let’s continue.

As Frank’s true, unautotuned voice emerges in the second half of the song, he sings in a rushed, staccato fashion while describing the dichotomy between lust and the risk of falling in love: “We only human and it’s humid in these Balmains/ I mean my balls sticking to my jeans/We breathin’ pheromones, Amber Rose/ Sippin’ pink-gold lemonades.” Regardless of all the excess and disconnection, he realizes the nature of the very human body, emphasizing our life in this current moment and eventual demise. This moment, he says, is the only thing that is certain. We face the crushing temporality of materialism in stuttered stride. I cannot imagine a better reminder of one’s humanity than their balls sticking to their jeans—that and his blunt reminder that, “We only human.”

Temporality and mortality scare everyone. After all, who wants to face the unknown? What is known is not always the healthiest and dwelling in the past can be detrimental, yet when we look to love we love to imagine there is no future once that moment has passed and aged; “I may be younger but I’ll look after you/ We’re not in love but I’ll make love to you,” poignantly. We may have our whole lives, but in recognition that the latter isn’t guaranteed, I’ll make love to you even if we’re not in love for the now. We recognize we’re not in love, but why does it matter if one day our lives, facticities, and bodies are completely different? We spend our whole lives defining our subjectivity without heed to our own object, appreciate the human form for one time regardless of connection. For now… “Nikes” sets up the remainder of the album excellently, it introduces the motifs of sex, drugs, love, and youth while maintaining the duality of humanity—the duality we so seek to eliminate actively through the pressures of vice.

“Solo” confronts the individual, isolated away from his vices yet still influenced by them. It’s a fast-paced, organ-filled nocturne of loneliness; he’s frustrated and cooped up. When alone, we face a lot of our realizations of being the mortal people we are. We realize our temporality. We think about what we should have done with so-and-so. We think too much. This is a scatterbrained ode to those moments. He begins by painting a narrative of his regret for dating someone while he is immature and still caught up in highs and sex: Forgot to tell you, gotta tell you how much I vibe with you/ And we don’t gotta be solo… Fuck ’round, be cutting you/Think we were better off solo.” Even though he began a relationship, Breaux couldn’t trade his life of living in the moment to one heavy with ideas of the future. These facticites often burden us but the foresight to recognize this in relation to living a not-so-linear life is supposedly what frees us. We enjoy living in the absurd, surreal world of infinity. A singular moment seems infinitely reducible to smaller moments, it exists outside of the world of binary opposition. Frank seeks this absurdity and urgency to not waste his moment of infinity.

Another important note to make in this song is the appearance of a common cultural and legal occurrence: the fact that courts most often side with mothers in custody cases. “Now your baby momma ain’t so vicious/ All she want is her picket fence/ And you protest and you picket sign/ But them courts won’t side with you/ Won’t let you fly solo.” Beauvoir proudly claimed that she doesn’t care if women are happy. This may come as a surprise but a thing to realize is that with being human, there are plenty of losses and lumps. If one is truly, fully human, they are not to be exalted. She references the idealism of women in history, the placement of them as perfect gods who have no body of their own nor goals; in myth they are perfect, infallible, motherly beings. Far from human, but not quite animal, they solely exist to nurture life (e.g. Mother Nature, the Virgin Mary, etc.). This still exists in society today, as Breaux depicts. While she’s in her right for wanting a good life (“All she want is he picket fence”), the courts still believe women to have some divine ability for children.

Image from “Nikes” video by Frank Ocean.

“Nights” is probably one of the most popular songs on the album. It splits the album, time-wise, perfectly into the “day” and “night,” continuing the binary opposition and theme of bisexuality. The beat switch occurs exactly at the midpoint for the album. Masculinity vs. femininity, mania vs. depression, love vs. lust, past vs. future, youth vs. death, the list goes on. Between each lays a “Golden Mean,” as Aristotle would say, but in this album we see the portrait of a person battling two equally powerful binaries. From a riveting, chaotic day half to the dark, spacey, on-beat night half. “Every night fucks every day up/ Every day patches the night up,” we see that each binary destroys the other; each object destroys its subject. Being between subject and object is destructive, and we see that being pulled and pushed by either side incites riotous behavior in a person.

Riotous behavior engulfs the the track “Pretty Sweet” until its resolution. As dissonant guitars reign down upon climbing strings, Breaux panickedly asserts his ambition to “make it to the end.” The strings come to their terminus as the guitar mellows and he refrains with pride, “What it means to be alive on this side/ On this side/ On this side/ Fuck the other side/ I’m on this side, I’m on this side, I’m on this side,” meandering into, “Mothers of us be kind/ To the fathers on whom we rely/ Fathers of us be kind/ To the mothers on whom we rely.” Breaux’s femininity struggles to come to terms with the expected masculinity of a black male.

Image from “Nikes” video by Frank Ocean.

You may have heard the phrase “existence precedes essence” before. If you haven’t, that’s fair, not everyone peruses the works of Sartre and Kierkegaard. Basically, it means that consciousness precedes nature in that for things—like the object of nature—we, as sentient subjects, must assign any meaning to them. Breaux touches on this maybe (ironically) unconsciously in “White Ferrari”: “Mind over matter is magic, I do magic/ If you think about it, it’ll be over in no time/ And that’s life.” In the case of Blonde, he assigns meaning to what he does regardless of the consequences. Although the permanence of materialism is questionable, it is certain that what is valued will last as a testament to the human condition, it is what is left over of the years of love, lust, and living once we are gone. While these material things cement his acceptance of death, sealing his fate, they also foster a moral crisis in the nature of himself. Questions like “Are these the things I want to be remembered for?” and “Will I live through my work past my bodily death?” often appear. This new opposition of security vs. insecurity appear throughout the latter half of his album.

“Siegfried” confronts this internal conflict. The tales of Siegfried, an ancient Nordic warrior, contest the femininity of Breaux; in this track he reveals forthright his vulnerability, admitting, “Maybe I’m a fool/ Maybe I should move and settle/ Two kids and a swimming pool/ I’m not brave (brave)/ I’m not brave…” Yet, he answers his pleading for help. He settles that his work will last and that his art outlives his facticities and insecurities:

Less morose and more present
Dwell on my gifts for a second, a moment
One solar flare, we’re consumed
So why not spend this flammable paper on the film that’s my life?
High flights, inhale the vapor, exhale once and think twice
Eat some shrooms, maybe have a good cry about you
See some colors, light hang glide off the moon

The album wraps itself up in becoming comfortable with maturing in love, reconciling his teenage years of misidentity and waving goodbye to his youth and insecurities in “Futura Free.” Frank fully accepts himself as a subject of his own life, and although society may try to objectify him as a queer black man, he accepts that he—as a human subject—is quickly aging and his vices no longer hide the fact of his mortality: “Tech company/ Please gimme immortality/ I’m going rapidly, fading drastically.”

He recognizes he’s not a god: “I’m just a guy, I’m not a god/ Sometimes I feel like I’m a god but I’m not a god/ If I was I don’t know which heaven would have me Momma.” Breaux knows that he is not above his mortality or his actions. He encourages us to accept our own facticities as he concedes that, although our differences in ethnic background separate us, our bodies are all inherently the same and rooted in our subjective experience, “I’m gon’ let my nuts hang/ Nigga you got some just like me don’t you?/ Or maybe not just like me/ You know I’m Africano Americano/ And even if you’re half Japanese, roots run deep.”

Image from “Nikes” video by Frank Ocean.

Differences in perspective, experience, or preference could never separate a human from the human experience. From delusions of grandeur to crippling insecurity, Frank Ocean ensures we all confront our experience as subjects, free to enjoy our lives through what we find meaningful, no matter what it is. The message is that when we accept our human fate and flaws, we are freed to our universe to enjoy the moment we have breathing. Blonde is a Beauvoirian dream in that we appreciate our bodily, human existence in a way that gives us peace. When no gender is prescribed to a certain action, what is the threat in another’s opinion? Have sex with who you like, smoke and drink, do whatever gives your life value because we are not guaranteed another day in our fragile, temporal bodies.

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