The Swarm

November 29, 2012

A Rational Conversation: Amy Wallace Explores How D'Angelo and Frank Ocean Transcend Soul Stereotypes...

Eric Ducker

A Rational Conversation is a column by editor and writer Eric Ducker. Every week he gets on iChat or Gchat or Skype or whatever with a special guest to examine a subject that’s been on his mind.

Two of the most important music stories of 2012 proved the return of D’Angelo and the rise of Frank Ocean, who put out the great Channel Orange album days after revealing on his Tumblr that his first love had been a man. Writer Amy Wallace wrote extensive pieces on both the artists for GQ, where she currently serves as a correspondent; she’s also an editor-at-large for Los Angeles Magazine, and over her career has contributed to prestigious publications spanning The Los Angeles Times, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and Wired.

For her D’Angelo feature – one of the year’s most insightful, illuminating, in-depth pieces of music journalism, if not this decade’s – Wallace enjoyed unprecedented access, spending considerable time with the enigmatic soul legend and even travelling to Europe with him on his first tour in over ten years. In her recently published Frank Ocean story, she spent a day with the headline-grabbing singer in New York and spoke to him about his momentous year, creating a revealing portrait that proved far more dimensional than any mere celebrity profile. Ducker and Wallace discussed the similarities between D’Angelo and Frank Ocean, and issues of masculinity in R&B (sort of, more on that soon).

Eric Ducker: Do you listen to a lot of R&B?

Amy Wallace: I do – old and new. I grew up in a small town in Ohio that was kind of the cradle of R&B of that time. The Ohio Players, Earth, Wind & Fire, The O’Jays, the Isley Brothers – the list of musicians who formed me could go on and on. Plus, I have a 15-year-old son who is hip-hop-obsessed: Miguel is on in the car a lot.

ED: Not a bad car soundtrack.

AW: Indeed. You said at the outset that you wanted to discuss masculinity in R&B. I have a caveat to that, if you will permit me. I feel I should say that the two male R&B singers I’ve had the good fortune to interview lately, D’Angelo and Frank Ocean, aren’t comfortable with the label of R&B. Neither one of them is particularly fond of labels in general, but this one in particular rankles. D’Angelo, who’s long been labeled the King of Neo-Soul as well, said he didn’t want to be put in the R&B or the neo-soul box. He told me, “I hate the term R&B, because that acronym robs us” – by “us,” he meant black musicians – “of our proprietorship of rock & roll. Because that’s our shit.” For his part, Frank Ocean spent a fair bit of time with me refusing to be labeled, either musically or in terms of sexual orientation. But of R&B specifically, he said, “It’s really racially charged and kind of archaic.” “Demeaning?” I asked. “I don’t know about ‘demeaning.’ I think ‘inaccurate,’” he said. “So what do you call your music?” I asked. “Music,” he responded. “I call it post-modern, and people look at me like I’m being an asshole.” I say all this not to derail your interview, but because I think the issues are related. Part of what is going on in black popular music – in its forms and in the topics it continues to tackle – is a resistance to being labeled one thing or another.

ED: That’s really helpful, actually. I think we can bring this conversation into broader issues of masculinity in music, and the hows and whys people make (or don’t make) music. We can look at it from the perspective of these two African-American men, but we don’t have to dwell on the issue of race, especially since neither of us are African-American men – though I think it probably does have an impact on how what D’Angelo and Frank Ocean do is perceived.

AW: Yes. And I think to leave it out is impossible for a couple of reasons: 1. In Frank Ocean’s case, he has taken extra flak (and gotten extra praise) because hip-hop is so notoriously homophobic. 2. D’Angelo definitely paid the price for being a sexy black man, even as he rode that image to superstardom. Race plays a role in both. But yes, let’s not dwell.

ED: So, how do you think issues of masculinity motivate or hinder the creative work of Frank Ocean and D’Angelo?

AW: That’s a big question. Leaving gender preference utterly out of it, I think Frank Ocean is poetic in his ability to capture the difficulties of being a man. In “Pyramids,” there’s that moment when the song’s narrator, a man, is watching his woman get dressed to go to work at the strip club. He wants to have her to himself, but also appreciates that she’s got a job that pays the bills. She makes him feel like a man simply in “the way you say my name,” as he sings. “But I’m still unemployed.” In that little stanza, there’s so much about male-female power dynamics and the need to feel masculine, and how elusive that can be. Ocean is cinematic in his songwriting, and I’m not the first to say it. He’s a big Kubrick fan. He captures moments, as if with a camera, that really shed light on the state of the modern American man like almost no one else does. D’Angelo, meanwhile, I could write a book about. He’s made no secret that he is a huge Marvin Gaye fan, and that he’s haunted by dreams of Gaye. Before I interviewed him, I read David Ritz’s fantastic biography of Gaye, Divided Soul, because I’d heard that D loved the book. Gaye struggled with both his own masculinity and with the demands of his female public, and D has wrestled with the same. That said, in his music, D’Angelo can write about heartbreak like no other – by which I mean he is willing to be vulnerable. “The Root” is a song about being utterly wrecked by a woman. In that, he stands apart from much of hip-hop, or any music you hear on the radio, in how he’s willing to admit just how much power carnal love – and thus, women – have over him: “She left a stain, a dirty stain in my heart.” There’s also a feeling in D’s music that he sees connecting to a woman to be the highest calling, the greatest communication. That’s a lot for a manly man to confess. No wonder women love him so.

ED: You alluded to it in your D’Angelo piece, this idea that his masculinity is somehow diminished if women look at him too much as a sexualized object, or if he does anything to consciously promote that perception, such as maintaining the body he had turning the Voodoo era. I found that really interesting, that if his sexuality is too much out there, even if it’s clearly hetero, it makes him less of a man.

AW: For D’Angelo, this all proves very complicated because, at heart, he’s a music nerd. He knows every Prince concert’s playlist. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of James Brown and Otis Redding and Al Green. He doesn’t just want to be famous and successful; he wants to be respected as an artist. I know that sounds hokey, sort of, but it truly is his driving desire. Getting cut down to sinew helped drive his popularity, but when it began to dominate his experience – when women started to scream for him to take it all off – he felt not just cheapened as a man, but dissed as an artist. After my D’Angelo profile came out, more than one blogger noted the irony of what one called What Happens When Men Get Treated Like Women. The gist was, essentially, men can’t handle it.

ED: How D’Angelo and Frank Ocean deal with these two concurrent and sometimes conflicting ideas of “How do I present myself as a man?” and “How do I present myself as an artist?” is what makes them so interesting.

AW: Yes. Frank Ocean would say his gender orientation makes no difference, or shouldn’t make any difference, to those listening to his music. He argues that we relate to the feelings he describes – love, lust, yearning – and that they are the same no matter who is experiencing them. But his masculinity remains a key element; I’m fascinated when I read on Twitter how many women still proclaim their romantic love for him. In that sense, maybe he’s right: he is post-modern. I told Frank during our interview about being struck by my son and his male friends’ reaction to Frank’s Tumblr post about his first love. What interested them most was that he’d opened up this idea to them that people can sometimes love men and sometimes love women depending on who they happen to fall in love with. Once they took that in, they moved on, and went back to playing the music. I think that’s a shift, for young men to be so unfazed and unthreatened by that choice.

ED: Were you surprised by his response when you asked him, basically point blank, if he was bisexual? He kind of dismissed the whole idea, and said he wanted to move on.

AW: That exchange was prefaced by my mentioning a very high-profile music blogger, who had posted on her Tumblr page that she had asked Frank if he was comfortable with the label “bisexual,” and that he had told her he was. I raised that, and he balked. He said he’d never spoken to that blogger, didn’t know her, and in fact thought from her handle that she was a man. I mention all this only to say, my first surprise was that someone had claimed to have vetted this with him and had somehow not done so. From there I had to back up, as in, “Okay, so do you want to define yourself?” But by that point, it was clear the answer was “no.” It offends him that people think it matters in terms of his music. And yet, he knows that it does matter in terms of the progress he may be helping to make in the culture. He’s aware that his going public with his experience will potentially help other young people, and he’s happy about that. In that way, interestingly, Frank and D are similar. It offends Frank that people think his sexual preference shapes his music; it offends D that people think his body defines his artistry.

ED: From reading both of your articles back to back, some interesting parallels came up. In the D’Angelo piece, Chris Rock talks about the idea of black exceptionalism ,where if you’re a star, you have to be the best at what you do – the “Tom Hanks is an amazing actor and Denzel Washington is a god to his people” line. You said Frank Ocean doesn’t necessarily think in terms of race, but you get the sense that not only does he think he has to be the best artist because he is a black man, but he has to be a particularly exceptional artist because he is a black man who doesn’t outwardly identify himself as heterosexual.

AW: Absolutely. One important difference between them is that so much of D’Angelo’s upbringing was shaped by the Pentecostal church, many of whose traditions were forged as a way of enduring and surviving the cruelties of slavery. It occurred to me after talking to Frank Ocean that church hadn’t come up once; I didn’t ask him about it, but organically, in telling me about the roots of his career, it didn’t figure prominently. D is 38 and Frank is 25, and there are differences that stem from that as well. But what you say about Frank feeling the pressure to be exceptional – or “better than all you pieces of shit,” as he says in the piece – especially because of his unwillingness to pretend to merely be heterosexual is right on. I was struck that, even as he stepped outside of the accepted norms in hip-hop by revealing having loved a man, he at the same time kind of used the braggadocio of hip-hop in the way that he discussed it with me. His assertion that Channel Orange was good because “I worked my ass off,” that he didn’t have to “affect all this humility,” that he’d made “one of the most brilliant pieces of art that has come out in my generation” – all that was big talk that fell squarely in the boastful hip-hop tradition. His rhetoric came up over the top of his critics – dominating them, or at least attempting to – even as he was talking about doing something that some would label less than masculine. I loved that he was resisting it and using it at the same time.

ED: Did you get any sense of how Frank Ocean regards D’Angelo’s music? And conversely, do you get the sense that D’Angelo pays any attention to what’s happening in the world that I’ll obliquely refer to as “youngish black men making music”?

AW: Frank and I talked briefly about D’Angelo. He was lamenting having missed a concert of D’s that I went to at the House of Blues in L.A. He’s a fan, even though he was only 13 when Voodoo came out. D’Angelo’s muses are the established greats: Marvin Gaye, Al Green, Stevie Wonder, J Dilla and, of course, Prince, Bowie and George Clinton. But there is evidence that he listens to younger, more modern people. He covered a Soundgarden song that made it to the Internet at one point.

ED: It’s funny that you pointed to Soundgarden as modern, considering that even they pre-date D’Angelo’s recorded output.

AW: I caught myself as I typed that. I guess what I meant was, he looks outside of the genres most people would assume he’s steeped in. He’s a broadly curious music fan. He is no fan, however, of much mass-produced popular music – what he’d call “whatever the fucking gatekeepers have us doing because they think that that’s the formula to make money.”

ED: It’s tough to hypothesize on this, but do you think Frank Ocean seems psychologically capable of handling the pressures of what he’s currently going through? I don’t think Channel Orange is his Voodoo, but everything is even more accelerated in culture now. Or do you think Ocean’s personality and generational differences from D’Angelo will enable him to keep putting out music at a more regular pace and not have to physically or mentally retreat?

AW: I think they are very different. In a very real sense, I would worry more about Frank Ocean if he hadn’t made his revelation public. As much as it will complicate things at times for him, I got the clear feeling that it has vanquished, not strengthened, his demons. So at the start of his stardom, he’s shedding baggage. For D, his fame introduced new pressures he’d never before imagined. He wasn’t always a sex symbol, remember; that came with the Voodoo tour and album. Of course, I’m no psychologist: while I’m grateful for the access I got, I’ve spent very limited time with either man. But Frank seems pretty solid within himself to me.

ED: Cool, we’ve covered what I wanted to cover. Anything else you want to talk about?

AW: Only that I’m hopeful that Frank Ocean signals that things are, if not completely shifting, then expanding. Yes, there are still misogynist and homophobic lyrics in hip-hop and rap (and rock, for that matter). Even Odd Future, the rap collective that counts Frank Ocean as a member, has lyrics that rely all too heavily on the use of “faggot” and its variants. There’s still machismo to spare. But there’s also Ne-Yo singing, “Let me love you Until you learn to love yourself.” Or expressing his romantic interest in a woman, in “Miss Independent,” based on her ability to pay her own bills. I’ve never met Ne-Yo, and his voice is in the upper registers, but if you ask me, he’s got masculinity to burn.

ED: Oh wait, I have one more question: Do you think D’Angelo will release a follow-up to Voodoo in the next year? The next three? This decade?

AW: I don’t know, but I can’t wait for it, whenever it drops. The tracks I’ve heard are unbelievable.

ED: Now you’re just trying to make me and the rest of the world jealous.

AW: Yes. Yes, I am.

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