Out in the Open: A New Understanding of Frank Ocean’s Novacane

Five days later with the buzz for his album feverish, Frank Ocean performed for the first time on live television on Jimmy Fallon’s late night show. Backed by The Roots, and with the wonderful touch of a string section, Frank sang his song of unrequited love, the same song at the heart of the initial rumors: Bad Religion.


With all the discussion of Frank, and after listening to his album, I couldn’t help but dust off my copy of Nostalgia Ultra, and swing back through some of my favorite Frank Ocean joints. As I listened to Novacane I heard the song differently. Previously, I’d taken the song at face value and assumed it was about a supremely built-Z-Trip-listening-dental-student-porn star with a novacaine stash who put it on Frank so awesomely that it rendered him incapable of achieving satisfaction with anyone else. But with lyrics like:

I think I started something. I got what I wanted, didn’t I. I can’t feel nothing, super human – even when I’m f*cking, Viagra popping, every single record, auto-tuning, muted emotion … pitch corrected, computed emotion.


All the pretty girls involved with me, making pretty love to me Pretty, Pitty Pitty, I can’t feel a thing, can’t feel a thing, I can’t feel her.

It’s hard not to wonder whether Frank’s muted emotion, his inability to feel, and his inability to arouse himself unassisted, was somehow instead related to his unrequited love for a man. With this new understanding of Frank, it’s hard to tell whether it’s her attractiveness that has Frank sprung, or whether the numbed pain has created a previously non-existent space for him to experience something that he had not before. And as I think back to the first time I heard the song, I wonder too if Mister Cee heard something in it imperceptible to my deafly heteronormative ears as he was fighting off questions about his sexuality around the time he debuted the song on New York radio. And as I think back to the annoyance I perceived in Ocean’s body language the first time I saw him perform Novacane live, I wonder if he really was ambivalent toward its popularity, or if he was just upset that no one actually got it.

It’s completely possible that I’m looking at this too deeply, or listening too closely. Novacane could be exactly what we all always thought it was – a simple, mid-tempo drug ballad about a fling with a beautiful woman. But with this new knowledge of Frank and his multi-layered life, it’s also completely possible that he’s been trying to tell us who he was since his very first single, and that last Wednesday, he just decided to put it in words simple enough for us to understand. He is loved and he has loved and in that way, he’s no different than most of us.

I have no great proclamations to make about what his coming out means for his success or for tolerance in Hip-Hop. All I really care about is the music. Some of the world’s most resonant and affecting art has been created at the hands of tortured souls – people who’ve had to internalize their pain and only have the opportunity to give us glimpses of it through what they produce. Frank Ocean’s art was clearly weighted and flavored by the burden of his once unspeakable truth. It’s why Nostalgia and Novacane are more than just a mixtape and single. The selfish part of me wonders whether Frank’s revelation will somehow lighten the heft of his music, or whether the freedom he might now feel will push his art to heights previously unreachable. Either way, it’s a beautiful thing to see people decide to present themselves to the world fully and wholly.

Every book in here I wrote. Some I’m not too proud of, some I wish I could burn. So many pages I wrote, wish I could revise ’em. But there’s no erasing and the best advice I got was keep writing, and keep living, and keep loving. And when the ink dries, and the pages turn to do dust- so will we.

Email:[email protected] Twitter:@MrSpradley

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  • kjones

    Well written Mr. Spradley :). I also look at his lyrics differently now that he has shown the world more of who he is. One of my favorite Frank Ocean songs is Swim Good. When I listen to the song again, it now has a deeper meaning which makes me love the song that much more.

    • Wistopher

      Mos def. I've had Swim Good on repeat lately since his relevation because I feel it and connect to it much deeper than I did before.

      Once again, Sprads doesn't disappoint with his words. I actually didn't like Novacane too much, but now I've gotta go back and listen to it.

    • jackson

      My best friend has just announced her wedding with a millionaire. They met via ) ==== cougarkissing_com ==== ( It's the best place to meet rich successful men & classy beautiful women. Our members include CEOs, pro athletes, doctors, lawyers, models, and celebrities….Maybe you can take a try.

  • Perfection!!! I have been trying to decide what to say about him too. What I came up with is a lot more vulgur and a lot less deep than what you said though. The way I see it, if he wants to go home and suck a d*ck or hump a dude, that's his business. His only responsibility to us is to give us good music, which he did and is still doing. The fact that he came out of "his" closet and decided to let us into his world, to me, makes him one of the bravest artists alive. And the fact that his music is waaaay better than 90% of the straight artists makes it that much better. I'm gone be going back and re-evaluating his lyrics now as well. But the fact that will remain no matter what, is, the dude makes some fantastic music. Music on a level that the world hasn't seen in a while. So while the homophobic haters listen to a straight Waka Flaka, Souljah Boy or that "Refill" chick, gimme the so called gay dude with talent any day. NoHomo

  • Euphoric Ears

    Great post! He also talks about a man on the Lonnie Breaux cd on "Bricks and Steel".Stomp stomp, I think hear him coming down that hall. He don't hear a word I say at all"

    He also talks about a woman "girl my phone bill is crazy, the rates are sky high when I call ya".

    I always figured maybe he was talking about the different point of views of this failing relationship…who knows.

  • iamkeishabrown

    *slow clap builds to thunderous applause*

    i think i say this about each of your posts that i comment on, but seriously – this was one of the best things ive ever read on the internet. period.

    one of the best reviews of F.O. and his post liner notes release thoughts EVER!

  • *stands and applauds*

    Excellent piece Mr. Spradley! You touched on one aspect that has not really been covered at all, and that's the fact that Frank Ocean has been revealing himself through his lyrics all along. No one has really got it until recently, but do people really understand him? Probably not. Well done brother.

  • WisdomIsMisery

    I don't have much to add. This is a great piece. I have nothing to add because I feel no different towards Frank Ocean now than I did before the "revelation." Great artist. Makes good to great music. And if he drops another single like Thinking Of You, I'll write more inspired joints like this one http://www.singleblackmale.org/2012/03/06/for-the… Regardless, his music will still get play from WIM.

  • cynicaloptmst81

    Loved the way the write-up focused less on the big reveal and more about how you found new meaning to what he'd already said…refreshing perspective.

    Admittedly though, I feel so left out of the FO hype. I have yet to listen to any of his songs all the way through because the snippets on iTunes didn't grab me when folks first started buzzing about him. I guess I have to now, lol. But, I typically need great lyrics AND great singing to fully be on board…and the vibe I get is that he's a great lyricist…not necessarily a great singer…someone pls correct me if I'm wrong. His chexuality/big reveal doesn't move me either way (Luther, Elton, George Michael, and rumored down-low r&b/hiphop cats gallore…and I still listen)…and I think the hype surrounding it is a bit much, honestly.

  • The Guy

    My moms like Luther and Prince, they both gay. Prince music is cool, Luther is aight. Dance with my father was weird tho, maybe he was catholic, RIP.

    • Negro, Prince Gay??? Slow up. Prince has slept with more bad b1tches than twitter and facebook combine. Look at his Resume, dude put in work. You can't just be calling people gay like that…. Dude does nothing be touch racial ambiguous dimes.
      My recent post Barron Networks Pull List – 7/11/2012

      • Vee (1)

        And it's great that despite all the "don't care if he's gay or not" comments before this, we got one that highlights how bad it actually is to be gay. Lord forbid Prince be called gay! What an insult!

        • Wait a sec, Mrs Political Police Officer. I am not down for that. There is nothing wrong with being gay, but there is something wrong with calling people who are not gay, gay. For instance, there is nothing wrong with being a football player. But if you call MJ, the greatest basketball player of all time, a football player.. you are going to get clowned. Its an insult on you, not gay people. If you call Prince Charles, the future Queen of England, is that not an insult? Is there anything wrong with being a queen.
          My recent post Random Shots: Hatred by Powerade

  • dee

    Dude has released like 5 songs since he's come out. Publicity stunt?

    • Really bugs me how we assume everything someone does that draws publicity is a publicity stunt. It's intellectually lazy to make that assumption. He wrote a song about loving a man. People heard the song when he previewed the album. They went on blogs talking bout "frank ocean is gay" – so instead of letting the narrative around his sexuality be driven by rumors and innuendo, he decided to own the dialogue and shape in a way he felt was honest and true to his feelings.
      My recent post Out in the Open: A New Understanding of Frank Ocean’s Novacane

    • tylisa06

      I dont think his "coming out" is a publicity stunt but I'm pretty sure his handlers are going to ride this wave and use it to his advantage. Before this letter do you think he would have recently been on Jimmy Kimmel…probably not….album pushed up–I dont think so. If he is interested in selling records he would take this new popularity and run with it, which I believe he's doing and dont find nothing wrong with that.

  • Franie Kelly has always been a huge odd future fan and an indie rap enthusiast .

    been waiting on this post since the new broke… Like the post. I can't say I look at the music differently because what I always liked about Frank was how complex the writing was. To be frank (npi) I would rather listen to a gay dude than hear one more r&b song about rap concepts.
    My recent post Barron Networks Pull List – 7/11/2012

  • Muze

    divinely written.

    i was waiting for your thoughts on this considering how we've discussed his music on end. very well done.

    i actually didn't care for Novacane and still don't really, but when i heard Thinking About You for the first time and he said "my eyes don't shed tears but boy they fall when i'm thinking about you.." i thought hm.. he could be talking about a man, or it could be just an exclamation. that curiosity was doused when my sister said it was written for a female artist, but if you listen to the words… it pretty much lyrically describes what he spoke about in his liner notes. and if he did write it for a woman, he didn't change the pronoun for his cd. lol.

    even on his tumblr which i've been following for a while, he has posts that suggests he had to love in secret. a while ago he posted a pic of a girl and boy a phrase that said something like "looks like we'll just have to be in love in secret." and his words were "story of my life." i didn't think much of it then. but yeah..

    i'm glad he's being true to himself.

    great post.
    My recent post Beautiful, and Other Thoughts.

  • Mik

    well written…. im just sitting in awe at the word floating off the page and into my heart. I just had a conversation with my friend about this and seriously you couldn't have said it better!

  • missparker87

    So beautifully written. I think you hit the nail on the head, especially with ur line on the 1st page about seeing Frank but never really seeing his soul when he performed. I felt there was always a part of him that he kept from the public, a reason to why his lyrics are so beautifully vague. That’s what makes his music so beautiful. In a world of direct, highly suggestive lyrics “b*tch bend over, I want to fck u right now” etc Frank’s music is very less direct and interpretative. Even in interviews or on his tumblr, he never gives straight answers to questions. And he always seem shy during performances I’ve seen. Always made me wonder “What is he hiding?”… Now we know. And now we get it. He seemed so relaxed on the Jimmy Fallon show. SIDE NOTE: In his unreleased song “Day Away” on the lonny breaux collection, Frank sings about a “he.” He does this in several of his unreleased songs actually. The excuse I always got from others was that because he’s a songwriter for female artists, he sings from their perspective. When Neyo did covers of songs he wrote, he never sung them from a female perspective. #js I think Frank’s been trying to tell us for awhile lol..

  • come on people

    when i listened to the song after the "letter" my mind made the same analogy as you did with Novacane. I was like wow, that is what he ment the whole time. It always seemed like it had so much more than what he was actually saying.

  • tylisa06

    Sorry Jimmy Fallon

  • Anastasia!!!

    I'm so very late, but I had to let you know that this is gorgeous. Maturely written and awesome.

    thank you for this!!

  • skipfrombk

    I feel that after reading his letter, his past works sound so different. I never re-listened Novacane but when I get the chance I will. To listen to his music with a better understanding might opened us to things we missed before. Great post!
    My recent post The Big Question: How Does Sexual Orientation Affect Job Performance?

  • nowsayitwithme

    Nice post. Very well written I hated that this coming out made people go, "Well, I expect that from an R&B artist. So it's okay. But if it was a rap artist, that would have been crazy" or "Oh man. Now I can't listen to him because he was singing about a man." The revelation made people's @$$ show. Terrible. I don't feel any differently since his coming out. His music is still awesome. Always would have been despite anything that happened. He seems like one of the few people in the music industry true to himself and the positive feedback and responses I've seen make me happy. But back to the point… I love his music. It really does make you think