We know that Frank Ocean's bold move of publicly admitting that he is a man who has loved another man is a huge thing for R&B—and, to a lesser extent, hip-hop since Ocean sometimes sings with rappers. Here is how Touré put it last week:
Ocean is an effortless heartthrob who sings in a hip-hop idiom. Hip-hop culture is notoriously homophobic, and asking the community to be nuanced on the issue of sexuality is like asking a middle-schooler to discuss metaphysics. Hip-hop is a parade of alpha men who use the dominance of women to enhance their manhood and seem to know nothing of the concept of anima, the feminized part of masculinity.
Right, well, except not really. Ocean is unmistakably an R&B singer and while it is true that R&B has never quite seen someone of this profile be so unapologetic about romantic feelings for another man, femininity in the genre is not only accepted but forgiven entirely when it is backed with talent. And this is relevant because so much homophobia amounts to femmephobia.
Think Little Richard, James Brown (once an icon of masculinity, though those scarves and his silky locks were anything but butch), Rick James, Michael Jackson, fucking Prince. Luther Vandross was gay (but closeted) — everyone knew and he was always allowed to use his voice since it was maybe the greatest male one this planet had ever experienced. Sylvester, an out drag queen, got airplay in 1986, in the height of the AIDS epidemic when gays were villainized all over again ("Someone Like You" peaked at No. 19 on Billboard's R&B chart). That's to say nothing of hip-hop, which has allowed Snoop Dogg to look like he left a woman's hairdresser's chair throughout his career, Kanye West's high-end metrosexuality and Andre 3000's flamboyance.
Furthermore, the hole in black music that Frank Ocean has slipped through has been loosening for some time. This is not only via fashion and affect but actual content. For years now, men have been teaming up with men to duet about love and sex at the risk of sounding like they're singing like they're banging each other with nary a "no homo" in earshot. I'm not talking about guy rappers having guy singers on their hooks (a clear commercial venture more than anything) or play-acting fare that designates roles to assert masculinity (like Usher and R. Kelly fighting over the "Same Girl") or groups that sing about sex (how are you going to be in a male R&B group and not). I'm talking about two separate singers uniting as one to sing about fucking…women?
Drake does this all the time. He appears on Justin Bieber's new album, Believe, singing together with the 18-year-old, "I just wanna put it on you, if you want to..." in "Right Here." That's not even his most eyebrow-raising homoduet moment: in "Shut It Down," off Drake's own Thank Me Later, he alternates with The-Dream, singing at one point, "Put those fuckin' heels on and work it, girl." That is straight-up how people talk on RuPaul's Drag Race.
It tends to be the same artists that are attracted to these setups. Chris Brown has sex-sung with Tank a few times ("Lonely" and "Foreplay") but his Bieber duet from F.A.M.E., "Next to You," is unmistakably tender:
Chris Brown: You've got that smile / That only heaven can make / I pray to God everyday / That you keep that smile.
Justin Bieber: Yeah, you are my dream / There's not a thing I won't do / I'd give my life up for you / 'Cause you are my dream.
Later, they sing the word "lovely" in unison.
Bieber's career-long son/daddy relationship with Usher was musically consummated in a remix of "Somebody to Love" that they trade vocal duties on.
It culminates with Usher saying to Bieber, "J.B., you are." And then Bieber says, "Yeah, man." It sounds like they both agree that Bieber is that somebody. (Correction: What Usher is actually saying, as pointed out to me by the Hairpin's Jane Marie is, "J.B., U.R.," for Justin Bieber and Usher Raymond. Initials: not so gay, actually.)
The list goes on. Usher's hooked up Ginuwine for "Seduction" (a song about "sensuous, sexy, erotic seduction"), Ne-Yo and Jamie Foxx rub elbows (along with rapper Fabolous) on "She Got Her Own," Joe and Case have done "Faded Pictures," Chico DeBarge and Joe have done "No Guarantee" and "Listen to Your Man," Jon B and Babyface did "Someone to Love," Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney did "Say, Say, Say." R. Kelly, freaky as he is, has duetted with Tyrese on "Signs of Love Makin' (Part II)," which is about, of all the gay things, the zodiac.
But my absolute favorite of any of this homosocial soul is another R. Kelly/Tyrese match-up that also includes verses from Robin Thicke and The-Dream. In "Pregnant" from Kells' Untitled album, these four dudes combine forces to discuss how much they want to inseminate their respective partners. Because it ain't no fun if the homies can't have...babies. At one point, Thicke sings, "Ohh ooh this song has got me hungry baby, baby," because guys shooting off in their women is delicious.
All jokes aside, this phenomenon bespeaks a comfort with masculinity that has been evolving with the increased frequency of these same-sex duets. That's not to diminish Ocean's bravery for coming out, because there's a decided difference between singing a love song with a man and to one. Ocean's move is an important step, but it's just not a leap.