Frank Ocean’s Chanel offers listeners a dive into the artistic mind that gifted our hearts and ears Channel Orange, Blonde, and Endless, the artist’s last three solo projects. The audio-visual universe of the song obfuscates the imagined boundaries between sex, race, and class. From the cover art to the lyrics, the Long Beach native is wizardous in attuning the listener to the soul of the song: our existence binds itself to no profound singularity but rather lends itself to an infinitude of experiences that bend and weave together to shape the world as unique for each of us.
The cover art for Chanel (pictured above) is itself an exposition of the duality of self explored in the song: a fractured image of a solitary Frank swanked in Gucci lost to the recesses of his own mind. His marriage of the two photographs can be read as an allusion to his bisexuality, the inversion of traditional beauty standards, and the performance of class by wealthy black musicians particularly in Hip Hop and R&B - here I'm flooded by memories of a young Kanye who "went to Jacob with 25 thou/Before [he] had a house and [tried to] do it again" (Genius).
The Odd Future album begins by singing “My guy pretty like a girl/and he got fight stories to tell,” calling attention to his lover's combination of beauty and brawn as an inversion of traditional gender performances. On the one hand, Frank appropriates the term “pretty,” generally associated with feminine beauty, to describe his male partner’s appearance. On the other hand, by citing his partner’s previous experience with fighting, he identifies within him an infamously masculine trait: violence. Therein, the lover's body is the site whereupon the classical polarities are entwined. By locating traits both feminine and masculine within his lover, Ocean argues (through song) for the viability of embodied dualities as desirable ways of being regardless of the dictates of tradition.
Later, Frank sings “I see both sides like Chanel/See on both like Chanel,” referencing the duality explored in the song by invoking the imagery of the iconic Chanel logo which has “two C’s facing in opposite directions” (Genius). Iconic symbols are frequently used to crystallize and communicate feelings, thoughts, and ideas we often experience as ineffable. The immaterial (ineffable) demands the material (image) through which it can be known. The inscription of memory in the collective unconscious through ritualistic symbolism is an example of occult science. The occult refers to the hidden culture of a given society, and the creation, implementation, and resuscitation of symbols old and new to shape the collective unconscious is the science of this culture. It's hardly impossible to imagine Frank arrived at a similar understanding when considering the incessant return to the couplet throughout the song. Funnily enough, Odd Future rose to prominence in the late 2000s early 2010s right around the time 'Are Jay Z and Beyonce in The Illuminati' videos were making their rounds on the big red tube. I have no particular opinion on the matter save to say it should strike none of us as surprising that the most prominent agents of cultural production in our time are not at all shooting in the dark but instead drawing on methods whose efficacy has been proven across Millenia. Nonetheless, be it accident or intent, the repeated use of the refrain throughout the song has the effect of stewing the listener in the memory decadence and duality elicited by the symbol that is Chanel.
From there, Ocean explores dualities in personhood that emerge from potentially fatal incongruencies between the world and oneself. That is to say, embodied dualities of self are not always voluntary, and are sometimes deathly. Consider for a moment the disjuncture that occurs when confronted with dehumanizing violence on the one hand, and the assertion of yourself as human on the other. The words “Police think I’m of the underworld” illustrate how ghoulish the military-industrial-complex is in the United States, especially toward black people. To think someone is of the underworld is to believe them to be less than human. As listeners we're captured seamlessly by the poetry in his voice; and yet we're pained by our shared knowledge of the anti-blackness of olive units across America. Only a few lines later, Frank rejects this subversion of his humanity based on racial identity, and asserts that he is in fact God, singing “God level I am the I am” (Genius). However, given that one often cannot evade their lived experience, in effect what happens is that one is torn between who they imagine themselves to be, and who the world tells them they are. Thus, Frank never exists in either reality wholly, but rather experiences both simultaneously, and his personhood emerges from this duality.
Lastly, in the outro of the song, the hyper-materialism expressed in Ocean’s lyrics creates a jarring contrast with the more immaterial themes of earlier verses. For instance, Ocean mentions “cash,” “bags,” and “Visa,” all colloquial terms synonymous with money eight times in the last verse alone. By contrast, in the opening verse he makes no mention of his material wealth at all (Genius). Initially, Ocean’s last verse may seem incongruous with earlier verses, and in particular the overarching theme of duality explored therein. However, upon further scrutiny, one finds that the glamour embedded in the lyrics of the last verse is well juxtaposed with the sentimentality of the lyrics in the first. In fact, the two verses work in concert to produce in form the duality explored in content. In other words, the inverse relationship between the lyrics in the verses of Chanel where the contents of each verse contrast each other along the lines of sensitivity and vanity in a fashion that mirrors the theme of duality that is suffused throughout the song. Thus, the contrasting views of materialism in these verses produce a dualitis in form and content, which is true to the heart of the song.
Ultimately, Chanel is not only a sonic dreamscape of the dualities expressed sexually, personally, and materially that encompass the visions offered to us by Frank Ocean, but also a lyrical feat that invites listeners into the mind of one of the greatest artists of our time.
Written by: Kukhanya Magubane