The Symbolism of Every Frank Ocean Reference in ‘Insecure’—An Absurdly Detailed Investigation

By | Posted September 11, 2017
In season two of 'Insecure,' Issa Rae and her team of writers used Frank Ocean as their muse.
2017-09-11-frank-ocean-insecure-references
Photo Credit: Issa Rae/Instagram

Last night (September 10), Issa Rae and HBO closed the season finale of Insecure with a previously little-known version of “Biking” featuring an extra verse from Frank Ocean. As the credits rolled and Ocean rapped, a bow was neatly tied around an otherwise messy set of episodes that further exemplified Rae’s narrative mastery of what it’s like to love a black millennial.

Accenting the lies, confusion, and poor decision-making characters grappled with throughout the season was a stellar collection of songs. Curated by Raphael Saadiq, the set felt like the most astute playlist a television program could assemble for an audience this black and this young.

As explored more than once before, aesthetically, music is central to the structure of the world Insecure has built for its inhabitants. During what seems to be the second leg of a golden age of television, Rae and Saadiq have managed to put together the best-sounding show on cable. But the show’s feel for music and the resonance of familiar sounds extend far beyond what’s included in its score, as songs that influence its story are just as apparent.

Last year, Rae and her team of writers included sly references to Drake lyrics into bits of dialogue in each episode. This year, their quiet homage to emotive pop stars continued, but with Frank Ocean as their muse.

Critics and fans alike have noticed the subtle call-outs all season and nodded with approval each week. But in the coming days or months, once we’ve healed from projecting our personal love lives onto those of Lawrence and Issa and Molly, we’ll re-watch this season with a clear eye and a fresh ear, appreciative of the symbolism of those references and the creative brilliance with which they were engineered.

By interpolating Frank Ocean lyrics as storytelling devices, Rae and company effectively contextualized each character’s emotional depth. That depth requires close examination of the remarkable amount of subtext Insecure has amassed in just 16 half-hour episodes. With careful nuance, each lyrical nod to Ocean is delivered under the weight of that subtext, making these references feel like so much more than neat tricks or clever novelties.

There's a richness to Ocean’s lyrics that accentuate the plot points of the story. Without them, the show has less of an emotional compass, and characters' actions feel slightly more randomized and aimless.

Echoing the “every black girl that went college likes Drake” setup in the series’ pilot, the inaugural episode of this season ("Hella Great") kicked things off with a simple name-drop as Lawrence asks Issa, referencing her missing throw pillow, “What happened to Frank Ocean?” Then came the 21-stroke quickie on the couch. Then came the lyrics.

“Hella Questions” (Ep. 202) — “Pyramids”

Of the show’s supporting bench (Issa’s younger brother, her gangbanging neighbor, Lawrence’s homie Chad, etc.), Kelli typically has the funniest one-liners—most of which are ad libbed by actress Natasha Rothwell, who happens to also be one of the show’s writers.

After accidentally alerting Issa of Lawrence’s most recent fling, Kelli playfully suggests Tasha “looks like she’s working at the pyramid tonight.” Upon further review, what went over as a harmless (if not mildly slut-shamey) quip actually spoke to other lyrics within Ocean’s near 10-minute cinematic single.

Lyrics like, “The way you say my name makes me feel like I’m that nigga, but I’m still unemployed”—as Tasha massaged his ego when he couldn’t find a job—kept him whole when he felt broken and gave him her trust when Issa betrayed his.

From that joke on, Kelli brought to light something viewers, and eventually, Issa, grew to suspect, and something Lawrence would ultimately confirm—that his time with Tasha was more of a rebound than a romance.

“Hella Open” (Ep. 203) — “Solo”

As we’ve learned through her therapy sessions, her indecision with men and her wrong-headed definitions of love, Molly’s arc throughout the series has proven time and again she may be better off solo. With that knowledge, Lionel's (Sterling K. Brown) brunch confession (“I gotta tell you how much I vibe with you”) felt appropriate in ways that rang both poignant and ironic.

“Solo” tells the story of a man finding bliss in solitude, despite his desire for a specific person’s companionship. In evoking that lyric from that song, Lionel succinctly captured the most painful part of Molly’s recurring dilemma.

Last season, she vibed with Jared and Chris (Jidenna), this season, she vibed with Lionel and Quentin (Lil Rel Howery)—but never well enough for those vibes to fulfill her imagined idea of what love is supposed to look like.

“Hella LA" (Ep. 204) — “Ivy” + “Novacane”

Impeding on Molly’s ability to find peace in what she wants from love are the significant concessions she’s made within her relationship with Dro, her childhood friend and a polyamorously married man.

In "Ivy," a song recounting old love turned to fond memories, Ocean sings, "No matter what I did, my waves wouldn’t dip back then.” In one of their first meaningful scenes together, Dro repeats those words to Molly, establishing how long-traveled and deep-rooted their bond is—subtext that later would become the foundation for what makes their story so interesting.

Deeper in the episode, Lawrence finds himself between two white women in a threesome. The woman quoting “Novacane” during that threesome, shouting, "Fuck me good, fuck me long, fuck me numb," foreshadows the futility of him trying to fuck his depression away—the song's central message. Minutes later, that futility becomes apparent as he realizes both that woman and her friend fetishized him for his blackness.

“Hella Shook” (Ep. 205) — “Thinkin Bout You”

Reciprocating Dro’s energy from the previous episode, Molly subtly utters the refrain from Ocean’s nostalgic hit “Thinkin Bout You.” Without small moments like this and Dro’s “Ivy” reference from “Hella LA,” it’d be easy for viewers to dismiss Dro’s open marriage as a farce, and consider Molly a fool for falling for it.

Though we’ve only seen his wife on-screen twice, Dro's never discussed how she feels about Molly in particular, and she’s never openly acknowledged exactly how “open” her marriage is herself, fans have fully suspended their disbelief—an essential element of effective storytelling—and accepted Dro’s word based on the earnest assumption that an adult would never outright deceive a lifelong friend and lie on his marriage for something as simple as sex.  

“Hella Blows” (Ep. 206) — “Nights”

“Nights” is a song written with a decidedly insincere bravado. In a word, it’s bratty (in one more word, it’s delightful). During parts of the song's first half, Ocean taunts an old lover, as one or both of them seem stretched too thin to spend any real time together—which, deep down, is all he really wants.

His rejection of “that spend the night shit, kumbaya shit” plays as a defense mechanism, as he instructs the person to “fuck with me after my shift” even after talking all that noise. It’s a song about vulnerability, and the things we say to avoid such weaknesses.

While expressing how frustrated she is with the breakdown of her “hotation,” Issa echoes Frank’s “shut the fuck up, I don’t want your conversation”—even though, in the song and in the story, they both know that isn’t true.

Issa admits as much in the very first episode of the season when she recalls a previous conversation with Molly and admits, “Bitch, I was lying—of course, I want my man back.”

During the moment in which she quotes “Nights,” she’s talking about a man she met on Tinder. The subtext, though, would suggest it was inspired by Lawrence—as most of her actions seem inspired by Lawrence.

“Hella Disrespectful” (Ep. 207) — “Lost”

While attempting to reconcile some of her actions, Issa explains to one of her coworkers, Frieda, that she was “lost in the heat of it all.”

As fantastical and conceptual as it is, at its core, “Lost” is a song about remorse. “Can’t believe I got her out here cooking dope,” Ocean sings as he negotiates with regret. “I promise she’ll be whippin’ meals up for a family of her own, someday.”

Although wanting a rare win badly enough to excuse a school principal’s casual segregation of black and brown students is a bit different than turning a woman into a drug mule, after taking so many losses in her romantic life, Issa’s mistakes at work and Frank’s decision to fictionally sell dope share a single parallel—they’re both made with a desire for control and security.

“Hella Perspective” (Ep. 208) — “Super Rich Kids”

While Issa ends this season far from rich, couch surfing after increased rent forces her out of her apartment, Molly’s “too many bottles of this wine we can’t pronounce” reference to “Super Rich Kids” feels right for reasons other than money.

The most notable feature of "Super Rich Kids," and an indicator of its spirit, is its interpolation of Mary J. Blige’s “Real Love.” No matter how broke one is, the daunting and sometimes unattainable goal of discovering real love within the transparent cover of vanity that is Los Angeles can feel analogous to dating while wealthy—even if you don’t have it like that, the number of people who see you as a person and not a commodity is limited.

LA men being trash is an all-encompassing theme of the show that dates back to its first season. It’s also the intersection of Molly and Issa’s relationship.

As they both sit in Molly’s living room, minutes away from sharing doorways with men who do not and will not ever love them, this moment feels like the closing of a full circle. It’s the last time the two see each other before Molly picks up where she left off with Dro, and before Issa opts to sleep on the couch that ended her and Daniel’s friendship with benefits.

As Issa leaves Molly’s apartment and travels to Daniel’s, declining her offer to crash at her place instead of his, Frank sings, “When was the last time I asked for some help that I couldn’t get from nobody else?

In that moment, it’s fair to wonder whether these friendships, relationships, or companionships mean much of anything to anyone still in their twenties.

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