Tag Archives: Frank Ocean

Miguel, Frank Ocean, and the New Wave of R&B

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When my good friend Calvin told me that I needed to stop everything I was doing and listen to Miguel’s latest album Kaleidoscope Dream¸ I was a bit skeptical: “We’re talking about the same Miguel, right?  The R&B newbie whose only hit thus far was “Quickie?”  Yes, that guy.  He knew what I was thinking.  How could a guy whose best lyrical substance didn’t surpass “No bite marks, no scratches, no hickies, I just want a quickie,” release an album that was worth the stop-in-your-tracks kind of listen session that Calvin suggested?  But I rarely disagree with him on matters of hip-hop and r&b, and this case was no different.  If you haven’t listened to Miguel’s album, consider this a pay-it-forward from Calvin. Stop everything you’re doing, and give it a listen.

From start to finish, Kaleidoscope Dreams is a fantastic piece of work, well worthy of its Grammy nomination for Best Urban Contemporary Album. If Miguel weren’t going against Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange¸ another R&B masterpiece, I would call his loss the biggest snub of the year.  We haven’t seen this many high-quality R&B albums since D’Angelo and Ginuwine ruled the scene.  Yet, I think the Grammys created a separate category for “Urban Contemporary Album” because these young crooners are taking R&B to a place the genre has never been before. Gone are the days of A Capella harmony ballads and smooth jazzy riffs.  Miguel and his talented peers (Frank Ocean, The Weeknd, and The Dream to name the elite), have created a new sound for love songs, intertwining synthesized heartache, thick bass, and sexy funk. Accompanied with the growing prevalence of love drugs in R&B, we’re seeing a new sense of euphoria overtaking the genre.

By now you’ve probably heard Kaleidoscope’s radio single “Adorn,” which won Miguel his first Grammy for Best R&B song. “Use Me,” my personal favorite from Miguel’s album, is an anthem of sexual surrender. The first lines “Sedate me…so that your salty is sweet” commence a slow, brewing buzz into a  chorus of sensational bliss.  “Do You,” perhaps the most catchy song on the album, is gaining radio play as well for its dream-like, hypnotizing crooning and repetitive chorus.  What all these songs have in common is their natural, simplified expressions of companionship.  Very much like his approach to sex, Miguel takes metaphors of love that we’ve heard 100 times over—“I’m gonna do you like drugs”–and makes us feel like we’re hearing them for the very first time.

I could go on naming other quality songs on the album, but listening to the album as a whole is an experience in itself.  You’ll find yourself getting lost in riffs that mix pain and pleasure, heartache and newfound love, celebration and mourning.  And even with all these contradicting emotions, the music comes as easy on the ear as a KC and Jo Jo song you’ve heard 100 times over.

My biggest problem with R&B is that often, the music lacks any sort of political message.  The soft sound and funky vibes don’t leave much room for an aggressive message of change that rappers such as Lupe Fiasco or Kanye West achieve on every album.  Frank Ocean and Miguel are beginning to change that.  Frank’s  “Crack Rock” is tells the sad story of how the crack epidemic can destroy lives: “Hit some stones, and broke your home, Smoking stones in abandoned homes.”

He criticizes corrupt police and racial profiling:

Crooked cop, dead cop

How much dope can you push to me

Crooked cop, dead cop

No good for community

Fucking pig get shot

Three hundred men will search for me

My brother get popped

And don’t no one hear the sound

The final verse depicts how corrupt police can make extra money involving themselves in the drug trade with very little risk, whereas young black men are dying every day from gang violence, largely fueled by the war on drugs.

Take a look at Miguel’s latest visual treatment for his song “Candles in the Sun,” the most politically charged track on the album:

The opening verse criticizes a lack of peace and compassion in the world:

Hey, Say we’re all created equal..

That’s what they teach us

But that ain’t how we treat each other

Naw, that ain’t how we treat each other

Shit, the truth is that we need each other, yea

                We consistently preach equality in schools and fairytales, but in reality, we never live up to these standards.  The chorus brings back Frank Ocean’s portrayal of the destruction of crack-cocaine, and further addresses a lack of peace in the world:

Diamond in the back, babies on crack

Kick in the door, wavin’ the 4-4

White collar, war, crime, money gets spent

Candles in the sun, blowin’ in the wind

Sun goes down, heroes often get shot

Peace has long been forgot

Ooh will it be too late when we find out?

All in all, these songs present a cry for help to the American people.  While they lack the aggression of traditional political hip-hop, the sad lyrics and smooth sounds provide a much more peaceful criticism of our current values and actions.  These songs build a platform for R&B artists of the future, enabling them to incorporate a political critique into a genre that is used to nothing but sex, love, and heartache.  I’m excited to see where Miguel, Frank Ocean and this new crew of R&B pioneers take the genre next.  Moreover, I look forward to hearing how they might inspire our youth to build on their innovative music. I’ll conclude with a cliché, yet perfectly fitting quote from Miguel: “Tomorrow’s just a day away.”

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Waiting for Weezy: Homophobia in Hip-Hop

I was in a bit of shock when Frank Ocean revealed to the blogosphere that he had been in a romantic relationship with a man. In part, because no one in the hip-hop community had ever openly identified as anything other than vehemently heterosexual, let alone one of the younger, more promising icons of the new generation of hip-hop. The black community–a group inundated with homophobia–finally had a voice singing boldly against homosexual discrimination. Frank Ocean gave the young men and women singing along to “Thinking About You” a chance to empathize with his ballad, and understand his perspective, regardless of their sexual orientation.

For me, the news also hit a more personal nerve. I had slowly embarked on a journey to discover my own identity as a gay man, moreover a gay man obsessed with the lyrics of hip-hop. I grew up with rap streaming through my ears. On the bus, in the hallways, and pretty much any other place you can imagine young Pittsburgh kids gathering, we found a way to play blast our favorite artists: DMX, Lauryn Hill, and Lil Wayne, to name a few. For years I turned a blind eye to the homophobic remarks littering the verses of almost every artist I admired. “Faggot” this, “No-homo” that. Surely, my role models were just trying to assert their masculinity, a mindset that plays a tremendous part in a rapper’s persona.

Years passed before I realized the cowardice of homophobic slang. To repeatedly boast their bitch smacking, pussy popping journeys wasn’t enough: Lil Wayne had to reassure us even after he degraded “his” women, that he most certainly wasn’t a faggot. We get it, Weezy, you’re heterosexual; but, I wouldn’t go so far as to say you love women, as you spend far too much time telling the world how much you disrespect them. Lines like “You homo niggas getting’ aids in the ass while the homey here tryin’ to get paid in advance,” slowly began to make me cringe; Dear Mr. Carter: was it really necessary, in 2005, for you to perpetuate the myth that HIV is limited to homosexuals, solely to clarify your money-making ambition? No, Tunechi, it most certainly wasn’t.

I single out Lil’ Wayne here, primarily, because he shares an intriguing connection to Frank Ocean. Both men were raised in the “Creole Cockpit” of New Orleans, equally emerging from their hometown into the spotlight of hip-hop at a very young age. I only came to realize this upon revisiting Lil’ Wayne’s track “Tie My Hands,” his cry for help in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The song is refreshingly moving for Weezy, providing a hometown commentary to the racial undertones of the disaster, voicing a message of hope for New Orleans natives struggling to survive. Here, we see a brief example of Lil’ Wayne lyrical promise when he chooses to portray a motivational message in his music.

The opening lines, spoken softly by Robin Thicke, “We are at war with the universe, the sky is falling/And the only thing that can save us now is sensitivity and compassion,” speak against the Lil’ Wayne’s entire catalogue of hatred and discrimination. Offering “sensitivity” as the savior, Wayne speaks up against blind hatred harnessed in racism, ultimately blaming a lack of “compassion” for his personal struggle.

With the third verse, Wayne offers his final point of hope to the oppressed youth of New Orleans:

And if you come from under that water then there’s fresh air
Just breathe baby God’s got a blessing to spare
Yes I know the process is so much stress
But it’s the progress that feels the best
Cause I came from the projects straight to success and you’re next
So try they can’t steal your pride it’s inside

With each line, Wayne portrays an encouraging voice of “progress” and “pride” amid personal struggle. If he could only apply this message to his own homophobic views, he might understand Frank Ocean’s brave proclamation . Alas, Wayne only felt compelled to speak out against discrimination when it hit his hometown. Yes, Frank, “it’s the progress that feels the best…so try they can’t steal your pride it’s inside.” Indeed, Lil’ Wayne’s hands are tied. They are lashed with a blind homophobia that could easily be freed with “sensitivity and compassion.”

After Frank Ocean’s announcement, several hip-hop moguls–Jay-Z, Russell Simmons, and Busta Rhymes to name a few– stepped bravely to the forefront in support. And there I was, waiting patiently for Weezy to denounce his old ways. Instead, the hip-hop world got an affirmation that Lil’ Wayne was stuck knee deep in his homophobic mindset. Featured in Future’s “Turn On The Lights remix,” Weezy rapped “Tell her I skate/I ain’t got no worries/No Frank Ocean, I’m straight.” Finding a new, uninventive way to say “no-homo,” Lil Wayne’s croaky voice made me cringe yet again. Armed with blind hatred, Mr. Carter passed up an opportunity to support a fellow New Orleans native to yet again assert his masculinity.

For the hip-hop community, a group already behind the times with regards to sexual discrimination, the self-crowned “best rapper alive” wouldn’t budge. He turned his back to Frank Ocean, cowered in the face of progress, and let me down. Perhaps Lil’ Wayne will come around; maybe he’ll wake up one day and realize how wrong he was to denounce Frank Ocean’s moment of pride and progress. If not, he’ll slowly fade out of the spotlight, along with the archaic, discriminatory views of older generations. Until then, I’ll just keep listening to Channel Orange.

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