A musician herself, Maya Angelou summed up the entire history of black female music well with the line “I am a phenomenal woman.” She applies the term to black women and so thus to all of what black women produce. Phenomenal woman can only mean that I am a phenomenon, grand and beyond understanding, who surprises with self. Painter Betye Saar has spent the entirety of her career putting this thought to visual art, with her propositions of either the cosmology or what could be the cosmology of blackness. Her piece “To Catch A Unicorn” exemplifies this quest to produce visuals to match the phenomenon that is a black woman, or any human, and can be used like any photograph can to at least unseat one’s self about Billie Holiday’s singing or Lauryn Hill’s Hip Hop.
Black men have been less open to being existentialist about themselves. Black musical masculinity is seen from a very essentialist perspective because of this: Greg Tate’s “Flyboy,” a contemporary “Stagelee,” either affected by race and the world that surrounds him, which he ingests and twists into political musical swag, or a sellout. The truth is that black males are also “phenomenal” and so is their music. Like in Betye Saar’s painting mentioned above, are in search of unicorns under a full moon. An example of a “phenomenal man” is Frank Ocean and his most recent album Blond a phenomenon. It is, to me, phenomenal enough to be a mirror of what he lives, surroundings that are beloved to him, despite angst felt sometimes living them, and more.
Frank Ocean has, so far, mainly lived as a musician in urban areas. It’s the case for most young popular artists today. He’s moved from his native New Orleans, to Los Angeles where Betye Saar painted “To Catch A Unicorn.” American cities enchant, despite the fact that they are also sites of atrocity. American cities enchant like the sight of butterflies, in utter silence, butterflies of every color, going about their business of living in harmony with the landscape that surrounds it. When enchanted by an American city, these butterflies often offer a more resonating experience, a complex sight that adds sentiment to what art critic Robert Hughes called the ‘hesiodic simplicity’ (Hesiod wrote a farmer’s almanac) in American living (to democratic work culture.)
This enchantment does not hide the remainder of the city however, its wealthy, its ghettos, its humor, its tragedies. All of this is lived by the urbanite, while continuing to be enchanted by the metaphorical sight of these butterflies or else repulsed by the city. Ocean’s album Blond expresses this enchantment in its “production” while singing the remainder of the world that he lives through his lyrics.
His narratives get more complex as he goes along. They began with the girl “doing porn in the valley” to pay for school (“Novocane”) and turned into a cigarette smoking narrator’s love for a real life Forrest Gump (“Forrest Gump”) and the details in caring enough to long about another in life enough to lose one’s self control (“Self Control”.) Each time, he brings in much more complex devices, musical and literary, to do the same: record a mirror image of living in the urbane world that lives in. Andy Warhol did it with his portraits, as did Honore de Balzac and Jean Michel Basquiat. Why is it done? It would be best to ask the artist.
Blond was released by Ocean himself, and not by Def Jam Records. The fact that it was tells (and tales) us that this is un-censured, edited, music: honest expression. It makes his mirror, surely one with a very artistic frame, that much more valuable; phenomenal.