Frank Ocean doesn’t communicate by regular means. He’s not a Tweeter. He doesn’t have an Instagram account. So when Brad Pitt told GQ in a recent cover interview, “I’ve been listening to a lot of Frank Ocean. I find this young man so special. Talk about getting to the raw truth. He’s painfully honest. He’s very, very special,” Ocean didn’t respond like most people in the public eye with a re-post or an online shoutout. Ocean took his time to find the right way. He likes to wait things out, he wants to make it personal.
On Saturday night (July 22), during one of the more bizarre moments of his staggering, raw, emotive headline set at FYF Festival, Ocean told the crowd he was going to cover his favorite song: Stevie Wonder’s version of “Close To You” by The Carpenters. Brad Pitt suddenly appeared acting out a phone conversation while Ocean performed it. Ocean never acknowledged him. He may as well have been on a TV in the background.
“I’m a big Prince fan. Rest in peace,” said Ocean, revealing that his favorite number was “When You Were Mine.” In recent years, while living in hotel rooms he found the Wonder cover while falling down a “YouTube wormhole.” “It became my favorite song. I hope I do it justice,” he said.
Given Ocean was due to headline this festival two years ago and canceled (he was replaced by Kanye West at the last minute), for every one of the 10 minutes that pass after his scheduled onstage time of 11 p.m., the crowd shifted nervously, aware he may have pulled out of this one too. While waiting, one man asked a woman next to him who she’d compare Ocean to. She stalled for a few minutes, then offered: Michael Jackson.
Relief was the unifying sentiment when Ocean appeared by walking from the main stage along a runway towards a set-up that was a cross between the control room of a spaceship and an exposed recording studio. Wearing a Nike T-shirt with the words “Instant Karma” on it and a pair of headphones, Ocean created the atmosphere of a day at the office, not too dissimilar to the machine-heavy set-up of a Bon Iver show.
“Los Angeles, thanks for coming out,” he said, the first of several casual addresses to the audience. “I’m just tryna find my moment.” Again, it took him a second.
Surrounded by studio hands including Philadelphia musician Alex G on guitar, Ocean introverted himself to get in the zone. A notorious recluse, he recreated his own space in order to feel comfortable in such a vast arena. In those safe confines he was able to run through mostly recent material from last year’s Blonde album and also performed a funk-filled, bass-driven cover of “Only You” by Steve Monite. Certain trusted personnel were allowed close to Ocean’s environs, including Spike Jonze, who was filming the entire performance, some of which was played back live to the viewers on ’90s style lo-fi tape, offering three perspectives: pastiche, present and unknown future.
Ocean’s need to house himself in this set-up didn’t detract from the level of intimacy. His vocal delivery particularly on “Thinkin’ Bout You,” “Ivy,” “Biking,” and “Good Guy” was so vital you almost forgot his headgear made him look like the leader of a silent disco. The crowd attempted to ape his falsetto on the former but failed hilariously. Performing his ode to sexual fluidity “Chanel” at the start of the set, he buoyantly bounced up and down, pacing the runway.
“LA I’m f—ing with you,” he said. The shuffling piano of “Chanel” is as fluid as the conversation it offers on sexual preference (Ocean famously declared that his first love was a man via a Tumblr post after releasing his debut, Channel Orange). Fluidity is Ocean’s forte and his set was better understood as an extension of that. Whether stopping mid-song to ask for his vocals to be turned up or responding to fans’ individual “I love you’s,” he offered a live experience that was both a presentation and a conversation, an invitation to be a fly-on-the-wall in his studio sanctuary. Showing his process so nakedly to the crowd gave him nowhere to hide.
On “Good Guy,” he knelt on the floor in front of a keyboard, building the track — one about a blind date to a gay bar — until it climaxes into some alt rock style guitar shredding. The kneeling reminded of a lyric from “Bad Religion,” a song he didn’t play. “If it brings me to my knees, it’s a bad religion,” goes the line. Where love had brought Ocean tumbling to the floor in the past, music has replaced it. Lowering himself for these purposes is a faith system that works for him. But it’s not always consistent. “Good Guy” failed him, so he started the track again. His decision to wind back to the very start of that entire segment shows why it took him four years to follow-up Channel Orange with Endless and Blonde last year.
“We gon do that sequence over,” he told the crowd. “I wasn’t really stoked on that. This is my disclaimer. This is my fifth or fourth show back in so many years. If shit gets f—ed up, be patient with your boy.” Even once he started from the top he stalled on a line. “Ugh f—!” he cried. The fans cheered at him to continue. Ocean acolytes understand his fight for perfection. They’ve suffered it, anticipating new album releases after delays, maintaining the faith regardless of live cancellations. There’s an appreciation for Ocean’s striving for greatness. Music has become a higher power for him, the one platform where he can correct his own perceived flaws by attaining purity, something that requires great patience.
“I think that was better,” he concluded, before the show went on.
And what a show. The production was quite unlike anything, a reflection of his flowing universe, one which transcends genre, identity, color, and medium. He used instant messages onscreen to ask the crowd if they’re having a good time instead of speaking. He employed a teleprompter with Hello Kitty graphics for “Nikes” so people could sing along to lines about Trayvon Martin and A$AP Yams. Despite the elaborate nature of it all, there was no staging. Ocean would riff with his fans in the front, and when complimented on his sparkly rainbow shoes he offered, “These old things? I found them in the closet” — so dryly you wonder if the joke was accidental.
Earlier Saturday afternoon on the same stage, A Tribe Called Quest played their last ever Los Angeles gig. Signaling that Pfife Dawg — who passed away last year — had gone on a new “mission,” rapper Q-Tip signaled the end of an era for a hip-hop troupe that also didn’t pander to identity boundaries or genre limitations. It’s not exactly a passing of the baton to Ocean, but it’s hard to not imagine the same level of legend status eventually pertaining to him should he continue to imagine and realize at this level.
“I’m just a guy, I’m not a god. Sometimes I feel like I’m a god but I’m not a god,” he sang on penultimate number “Futura Future,” as though talking himself into and out of the idea that he might be this generation’s most eccentric iconoclast. “I ain’t on no schedule. I ain’t had me a job since 2009.”
For those gathered, Ocean did possess a whiff of the religious, presenting a new reality most wouldn’t have the capacity to dream up. He left the stage beaming after huge receptions for tracks such as “Pink + White” and “Nikes”, even though he didn’t deliver some of his most beloved tracks in “Novocane,” “Super Rich Kids” and “Pyramids.” Perhaps it’s a way of treating his subjects as he’s been treated. The melancholy pervades with Ocean, always. When he sang that line in “Thinkin’ Bout You” (“Do you not think so far ahead? Cos I been thinkin’ bout forever”) you wondered how a man so brave, so optimistic could suffer such crushingly unrequited affection.
But it’s that romanticism, that search for the eternal One, that keeps Ocean striving. When he first emerged on the scene, critics would declare this Frank Ocean’s world now, that we all just live in it. Last night, Ocean established that he’s actually in his own world, with his headphones on. He could be on the bus, but instead he’s performing in front of thousands. He left the stage applauding the crowd after “Nikes.”
“We’ll let you guys prophesy,” he coo’d. “We gon see the future first.” Ocean may be a shy prophet, but he definitely isn’t a false one.
Frank Ocean’s FYF Fest Set List:
“Be Yourself” (Instrumental)
“Close To You”
“Thinkin’ Bout You”
“Pink + White”