Without warning, R&B singer Frank Ocean dropped his newest single, “Lens,” late Saturday night. With it came a striking cover image that’s already become inseparable from the haunting track. It shows the face of a black man whose only visible feature is a white, gap-toothed smile. And to many who’ve made the museum rounds this past year, it looks stirringly familiar.
Ocean, who’s cultivated an aura of mystery since the beginning of his music career in the early 2010s, is often oblique about the inspirations behind his music. But the cover for “Lens” pays pronounced homage to at least one: the painter Kerry James Marshall.
Since the 1980s, Marshall has countered the absence of black men and women in the Western art canon by making them the subject of his powerful, monumental paintings. However, although his work had previously been shown in number of gallery and museum exhibitions, it wasn’t until 2016 that the Chicago painter received the retrospective he’d long deserved. The exhibition traveled from the MCA Chicago to The Met Breuer in New York to MOCA, Los Angeles.
In each location, the same small painting served as the exhibition’s anchor. It, too, wears a broad, white, gap-toothed smile.
Kerry James Marshall’s Bronzeville studio. Photo by Peter Hoffman for Artsy.
The piece is titled A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self (1980), and in it, the bust of a black-skinned man sits against a backdrop of the same hue. His figure—save for his white eyes and smile—becomes almost indistinguishable from its surroundings.
Ocean’s new cover bears clear resemblance to the painting. So much so that, just minutes after the track and its image were released, the comparison was being drawn on social media.
Marshall painted the self-portrait in 1980, when he was just 25 years old and at the beginning of his career in an art world that had for centuries ignored the contributions of black and minority artists. The piece uncomfortably recalls the racist stereotypes that have long glutted popular culture. But it also boldly voices Marshall’s own experience as an “invisible” black man and his desire to been seen and heard.
Marshall has noted that the piece was inspired by both his personal experience and writer Ralph Ellison’s novel “Invisible Man” (1952), in which the young African-American protagonist says that because of his race, he is “invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”
The piece would go on to serve as the potent seed for Marshall’s influential body of work, which would insert images of black lives and culture—like a barber shop scene—into the language of European history painting. In the process, he helped bring to light the prejudice that for so long whitewashed art history.
Ocean, too, addresses invisibility and discrimination in his work. On the first track of his celebrated 2016 album Blonde, titled “Nikes,” he pays tribute to Trayvon Martin, a young black man killed by a neighborhood watch volunteer at age 17, with the line: “RIP Trayvon, that nigga look just like me.” The allusion to police brutality and racial profiling is one of several made across the record.
Ocean has also made the prejudice and shaming the LGBTQ community faces the subject of his songs. “Lens,” in particular—through its hypnotic, labyrinthine rhymes—advocates for greater acceptance by telling the story of a closeted relationship. “Can’t be my type, I’m a low life,” he chants in one section, alluding to a fear he’s expressed of being honest with himself and others about his own sexuality. “Despite the life I lead, all this life in me, spirits watch me, pants down, can’t be ’barrassed of it,” he sings in the chorus.
It’s in this context that Ocean has riffed on Marshall’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self as the visual manifestation of his newest ballad. With the image, Ocean seems to acknowledge not only that “Lens” is a self-portrait, but also that it could very well, like Marshall’s work, represent the struggle of many oppressed, unheard minorities, whether racial, sexual, or cultural.
Cover image: Photo by Ole Haug, via Flickr.
An earlier version of this article stated that Trayvon Martin was killed by police. Martin was killed by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer.