How Frank Ocean’s Live Performance Connects Music With Physicality

By | about 3 weeks ago
FYF Fest was proof that Frank's live performance is an enhancement of all the themes from his mastered works.
2017-07-25-the-physicality-of-frank-ocean-music
Photo Credit: Nicoo C

“Is that him?”

“Oh my God here he comes!”

“No, that’s just Kendall Jenner.”

It’s an airy summer evening at last weekend’s FYF Fest in Los Angeles and the crowd is growing restless because Frank Ocean is four minutes late for his set. The collective anxiety from his past cancellations has manifested in deliriously mistaking a member of Instagram royalty for the enigmatic songwriter. At this point, fans will take any sign of movement as a fortuitous omen.

Until he assumes his place on the stage, no one can confidently say he’s going to arrive. The sea of faces was a jumbled mixture, simultaneously looking hopeful, antsy, burdened and unsure. Six minutes later, after “Pretty Sweet” worked the crowd into a frenzy uncharacteristic of his reflective music, Frank Ocean would begin the long walk from the main stage to the makeshift studio set-up his crew fashioned at the end of a center runway. He moved in solitude, joining a rolling sound system, a complex, animatronic light fixture with a disco ball keystone, and pale, bubbled chairs that could tie the porch of a beach house together.

By all accounts, Frank’s painstakingly methodical perfectionism extends to all areas of his output and his position in the middle of the crowd was no exception. It was one of many components in his performance that emphasized the physicality of his music and invited interpretation for the way in which he fits matter into personal experience.

Frank Ocean’s music is intrinsically physical in its subject matter and has been since he rose to prominence with nostalgia,ULTRA. His creativity stems from the pursuit of storytelling, but the four-year gap between channel ORANGE and Endless provided an opportunity to shift his storytelling objectives and the means of their execution. The first couplet of projects (channel ORANGE and nostalgia,ULTRA.) are sharp, sculpted pieces of music with more accessible thematic content, while Blonde and Endless are filled with wispy vignettes of emotion tethered to more effervescent production.

It’s not immediately recognizable what situation he’s describing on Blonde’s “Pretty Sweet” with its shift from frantic strings to frenetic drums. By contrast, it’s clear on a track like “Swim Good,” from channel ORANGE, he’s hammering down the weight of his baggage through cast-iron drums. In both cases, he uses the common experience of having a body to make his point, but his creative mission assumed another form in his hiatus before Endless/Blonde.   

He wanted his songs to be more autobiographical and this led him to mythologize his experience into tales that highlight human interactions with physical phenomena. Seeing songs of that nature, physically performed by the man who wrote them, gave a feeling of holistic completion to the journey he initiated almost a year ago with Endless. By engaging our sight and hearing simultaneously, he let the audience parse through his musings on physicality with an additional sense. Typically, that comes often for artists, but Frank is the reclusive outlier.

Now that the man was present on stage, he tinkered with the sound system, adjusting the knobs correctly in order to kickstart “Solo.” Given the subject matter, it was a fitting introduction. “Solo” scrubs at the Puritan cultural milieu that continues to stain Western culture with a constant disdain for physical sensation. The “inhale, in hell” double entendre in the chorus actively works against the admonishment he could receive for the deeds in his verses.

In Frank’s world—“hell”—participating in activities of the flesh like psychedelics and “that act right,” can be paradise. It’s not a call for wanton indulgence, he’s more nuanced than that. He delivers these lines from a place of maturity that recognizes the intrinsic neutrality of those actions and bases their net impact, morally or otherwise, from the circumstances surrounding them and the way they affect general well-being.

He delivered all of this with his unique brand of pensive confidence. He’s acutely aware of his fame, playfully commenting on his aloof touring habits as he transitioned into his three most recent singles, “Chanel,” “Lens” and “Biking (Solo).” These songs are rich with content to unpack, but the way he presented them is more interesting for my purposes here. Frank must have been concerned with how his body, the vehicle through which he delivers his content, was presented that night. Up to this point in the evening, I’d been focusing my attention on the Frank Ocean whose molecules were moving in front of me on stage, but the way he was broadcasting his image was purely cinematic.

Spike Jonze was on hand to film the live feed projected on screens across the stage and he alternated between filming in the highest resolution I’ve seen at a live show and the fidelity of a ‘90s camcorder. Seeing this happen, during “Lens” especially, forced the crowd to reflect on the way we color raw experience with our own interpretive framework. In Frank’s case, the filters may have detracted from engaging directly with his music, but he considers himself a visual artist and this may have been the point.

After rolling through some Endless cuts and a restarted “Good Guy” rendition, he timidly dipped into “Self Control,” a patchwork of emotional states intent on frustrating attempts to impose a linear narrative. “[That’s] how we experience memory sometime,” he told the New York Times. Throughout the verses, Frank reminisces on a past lover as he’s bombarded with memory-soaked phenomena. A simple, familiar sound can instigate tears and he’s confused by the power of air waves vibrating against a membrane.

While he wrestles with these questions about physical phenomena, he doesn’t carelessly reduce his experience to it. Though he didn’t perform “White Ferrari” at FYF Fest, its content is a necessary element of his views on the matter. In the penultimate verse, he claims that “mind over matter is magic.” From a cursory glance, it seems that ‘mind’ is something separate from ‘matter’ and that using this immaterial faculty to overcome the power of matter is difficult, so much so it can be considered sorcery.  

Magic or not, Frank continued his set. Apart from a synthed-up rendition of “Thinkin Bout You” and a handful of covers, he mostly stuck to newer releases, closing with “Nights,” “Pink + White,” “Futura Free” and “Nikes.” All were eagerly parroted by the crowd and further his discussion of our physical nature. “Nights” juxtaposes his longing for a higher existence (“Nirvana”) with the longing to feel what’s here in front of him, while “Pink + White” claims we have a deep connection to the Earth, making it an object of affection after times of crisis. “Futura Free” is a laundry list of exploring physical limits and “Nikes” explores our satisfaction with stuff.

Frank Ocean undoubtedly has one of the most anticipated live shows of the year, if only from its curated exclusivity. He delivers on his hype though, because of the way in which he allows his live renditions to enhance the themes he explores in the mastered editions. Ocean’s music doesn’t scream at you and force you to recognize your physical nature. Instead, he weaves you through impressions of his own experience living as a collection of cells and subtly reminds you it’s okay to embrace that for what it is.

As early as 2012, Frank was contemplating the limits of his existence. At the time, he wasn’t concerned about a distant future and focused his energy on being excellent in what he does each day. That effort requires a complete realization of what it means to be a body that will one day expire and his emotive performance reflected that. He delivered “Good Guy” with a tenderness that caused tens of thousands to grow quiet, despite his self-perceived hiccups, and was so consumed by the outro lyrics on “Biking (Solo)” that he dropped the mic from his mouth to turn his screams upward. He performed like a man who knew it could be his last stage appearance.    

After the last hum from “Nikes” left the speakers and his audience erupted into applause, Ocean bowed a few times and expressed his thankfulness to the crowd. As he made the walk backstage across the runway, there were whispers about which song he would come back out to perform. Minutes passed and the crowd began to funnel out of Exposition Park as they saw his crew breaking down the stage. To Frank, the show was complete.

Initially, it was disappointing for him not to indulge a few more songs, but the more I reflect on it, maybe he’s right about no encores.

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