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Frank Ocean Dazzles Panorama Fest With Intimate Opening Night Headlining Show

Frank Ocean
Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty Images

Frank Ocean performs at the 2017 Panorama Music Festival on Randall's Island in New York on July 28, 2017. 

In the weeks leading up to Panorama, there was reason to fear Frank Ocean’s Friday night (July 28) headlining set would never come to be.

Previous festival cancelations be damned, this one happened and it was special. The R&B singer mesmerized the New York crowd for a little over an hour, inviting fans into his own world for the sort of intimate performance you’d think would be impossible for a major festival headlining slot. 

It certainly helped if you were up close. The 9:35 p.m. start time came and went with no Ocean, but it was clear the stage crew was cooking up something interesting. A platform in the center of the crowd -- about 30 yards from the front of the stage -- was outfitted with keyboards, amps, a disco ball -- all suggesting Ocean would be performing from inside the crowd. He emerged about 10 minutes later, walking out alone to predictably massive applause. His first move? Nonchalantly putting a cassette tape into a stereo -- upside down at first -- before launching into “Solo” from this mid-crowd platform. Appropriately, he was the only human on stage. 

The pensive, stripped-down vibes of that Blonde track characterized the rest of the evening. Ocean focused on his 2016 album, peppering the set with a couple recent singles and Channel Orange songs, though only ones that fit this introspective, nocturnal feel. That meant no "Slide" or "Pyramids," but tear-jerking performances of "Ivy" and "Nights," the kind that make you want to take out your phone and text everyone you love, just because.

Ocean's stage show, what apparently led him to cancel those other 2017 festivals, was essential to the intimacy. Being out in the crowd was the most important part, with massive screens on the vacated stage projecting Ocean's image, often quite psychedelically, to the sprawling Randall's Island crowd. Sometimes the cameras would switch to a stagehand who was playing movies on his laptop and typing out playful messages in a Word doc ("heyyyyyy New York"). Scribbled artwork, presumably Ocean's, adorned the stage.

Working with a deceptively complex live setup, Ocean messed up a couple times -- missing a couple queues in his headphones, singing one song a few bars early -- but it only added to the experience; he chuckled off these gaffes, openly admitting them to a crowd that was very much in the palm of his hand. The biggest message came unspoken, from his white T-shirt that read, “WHY BE RACIST, SEXIST, HOMOPHOBIC, TRANSPHOBIC WHEN YOU COULD JUST BE QUIET?”

And before you knew it, it was all over. After going solo for the first few songs, Ocean brought a handful of musicians on stage -- two guitarists, a bassist, and a keys player -- who accompanied him through his sonic journey and pushed the mood towards its emotional climax. It was "Nikes," the harrowing Blonde opener in which Ocean eulogizes ASAP Yams, Pimp C, and Trayvon Martin. Ocean left the stage with the crowd wanting more and for a moment, it seemed they might get it. The stage lights lingered for a few moments, giving hope to an encore, before it all shut down for good.

Ocean had said all he needed to say, and every artist that plays the Panorama main stage over the rest of the weekend has an almost impossible act to follow. It wasn't that Ocean's performance was perfect; it's how there can hardly be another like it.

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