How Frank Ocean Uses His Obsession With Cars to Explore Identity, Growing Up & Self-Perception on 'Blonde'

Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP
Frank Ocean arrives at the 55th annual Grammy Awards on Feb. 10, 2013, in Los Angeles. 

Automobile metaphors are nothing new in music, but Ocean's exploration of car culture transcends the typical cliches.

All cars are drag. They’re a costume we put on to signal the world how we want to be perceived, a cloak of invisibility, a winking (or sometimes not so winking) commentary on identity. Frank Ocean is an artist who seems to intrinsically understand this. As a longtime resident of car-centric Los Angeles, a recent resident of automobile-averse London, and an openly queer songwriter with a gift for personal metaphor, Ocean recognizes the ways in which cars act as shorthand in songwriting and life.

“How much of my life has happened inside of a car?” Ocean asks in an essay he wrote for the book-length magazine Boys Don’t Cry published concurrently with the release of his new album Blonde. In the essay, Ocean writes about cars simultaneously inspiring claustrophobia and liberation: a traffic trap, as well as a means for escape and escapades. He views cars as signposts in his life, and as the vehicles that connect and traverse these periods. And he examines the automobile’s deep symbolic richness. “Raf Simons told me it was cliché, my whole car obsession. Maybe it links to a deep subconscious straight boy fantasy,” Ocean says. “Consciously, though, I don’t want straight -- a little bent is good.”

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Ocean prefers the indirect path almost as much as he loves to shift gears. Just when you think you understand his intent, he’ll pull the hand brake and drift.

Blonde is full of songs about the amorphous fourth dimension, time, and all manner of cars are used to carry their lyrical weight. In “Futura Free,” Ocean confronts success, looking back on his past earning minimum wage, and out to his million dollar-making present. He recalls a used Sedan he drove before his current friends even knew him ("Remember when I had that Lexus? No/Our friendship don't go back that far") before boasting about driving a seven-figure supercar ("Bugatti left some stretch marks on that freeway"). Ocean recognizes that moving forward is sometimes moving up, but he wonders what is left behind, and how quickly. (When asked for an official response, a rep for Bugatti said, “We don’t comment on placement in movies, TV, songs, etc.")

Ocean also uses cars to conjure the complex formation of identity over time. In a deft callback to his adolescence, he recalls riding around in his family’s car during his youth in New Orleans. ("1998 my family had that Acura, oh/The Legend/Kept at least six discs in the changer.") Yet this allusion to an obsolete medium, the compact disc, instead of accentuating its limitations, showcases its ability to provide a broad range of possible identities. No binary A/B sides here -- at least six discs.

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Meriting its own line is the car’s model name, The Legend, which seems to simultaneously reference Ocean’s childhood longing for celebrity, and his current hankering for mythology -- a glorified fantasy of the past. (He’s not alone. Ludacris loves his old Legend so much, he had it restored and featured on the cover of his most recent album, 2015's Ludaversal. Spokespeople for Acura would not comment on this call out.)

Ocean’s nostalgia is so thick, it was the title of his first real solo effort, Nostalgia, Ultra, a record that just happened to feature a 1980s BMW M3 on the cover. BMWs and wistful recall continue to play a key role on Blonde, in particular on the song "Ivy," where Ocean sings about his past, a time that seems to conjure an insular, inaccessible, yet intoxicating nihilism for him. "Safe in my rental like an armored truck back then/We didn't give a fuck back then," he offers. "I ain't a kid no more/We'll never be those kids again/We'd drive to Syd's, had the X6 back then." 

In this song, the BMW X6, a hunchbacked and hunkered-down SUV, is fortified. But it’s not just a means of protection, it’s also a reinforcement -- physical evidence of how the young driver wants to be perceived. The fundamental struggle of adulthood is to take one’s external signifiers of identity and internalize them. But sometimes internalizing means swallowing, hard, keeping things hidden deep. (A BMW spokesman said, “It’s great to see artists and longtime BMW enthusiasts such as Frank Ocean sharing their passion for our brand.”)

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Ocean sings about this kind of enforced repression on “White Ferrari,” one of the album's most moving ballads. A song about love, connection, and the fragile frisson of the unspoken, the track unfolds via a drive in a car that is simultaneously ephemeral and overt: a white Ferrari. (Ferrari didn’t return requests for comment.) Ocean sings, "Bad luck to talk on these rides/Mind on the road/Your dilated eyes watch the clouds float/White Ferrari/Had a good time." Tangled in here is a line about youthful blundering -- 16: how was I supposed to know anything --before the song returns to its plaintive meditation on silence, or silencing: "I didn’t care to state the plain/Kept my mouth closed/We’re both so familiar."  

Ocean is now 28, an age that delineates the boundary of emergent adulthood. Throughout his recent multimedia releases like the pre-Blonde visual album Endless and his "Nikes" video, a new awareness of being grown up emerges as he weighs the benefits of moving forward, with the liabilities of speeding away from his past. Nowhere is this as poignant as at the end of his essay in Boys Don’t Cry, where he envisions his youth receding behind him as if from the driver’s seat of a car. Despite his present happiness, he can’t release its hold.

“Boys do cry, but I don’t think I shed a tear for a good chunk of my teenage years," he says. "It’s surprisingly my favorite part of life so far. Surprising, to me, because the current phase is what I was asking the cosmos for when I was a kid. Maybe that part had its rough stretches too, but in my rearview mirror, it’s getting small enough to convince myself it was all good.”