“I'm not brave (brave) / I'm not brave” —Frank Ocean, “Seigfried”
Frank Ocean has tried being brave. It has not always worked.
On “Nikes,” the introduction to his opus, Blonde, Ocean’s initial woes quickly compound to a moment of responsibility. There’s a sense of duty on the closing verse that’s nagging in the way you may feel when you’ve become the martyr in your relationship. On “Nikes,” Frank Ocean is trying to be brave, but as we hear throughout the rest of Blonde, in the traditional sense of the word, Ocean is not brave. He is babbling and aching, defeated and splayed by his own anxieties and vulnerabilities.
But what does it mean to be brave, really?
There are caricatures of bravery, of course, but in the truest sense of the word, what is bravery if not the ability to face your own unraveling as Ocean does so skillfully on Blonde? Bravery necessitates insecurity, as insecurity begets bravery. The feelings narrowly become one in the same considering how often they face and flow into one another. Once we flip to “Ivy,” Frank Ocean executes the bravest move of his career: he stops trying. He accepts the insecurity and purports the notion that bravery is not ignoring your pain threshold. Bravery is allowing yourself to come to tears.
With that, “Ivy” is a clinic in taking yourself to the precipice, to the point of your reality tearing before your eyes. The pitching soundstage makes the track effortlessly evocative and surgical as it weaves through complex strains of emotion. Frank Ocean is halved and bare, all before we hit the 10-minute mark. This is bravery, is insecurity, is bravery. Later on, with “Solo,” Ocean confronts and accepts the duality of bravery and insecurity, singing, “Inhale, in hell there’s heaven.” The “hell” and “heaven” are obvious; what may not be so obvious are the years leading up to this dichotomy.
Bravery is the subject of nostalgia, ULTRA just as well as it's the subject of channel ORANGE. The records are brighter, a manifestation of bravery as blithe positivity and an endless summer. Both records tackle the jagged edges of love and self-discovery in an altogether less cutting form than Blonde. Standouts from that era (“Novacane,” “Thinkin Bout You,” “Super Rich Kids”) feature a youthful drama and element of posturing—an honest performance of bravery.
But as we know, we perform because we are escape artists; we are runners. We perform because there is a present discomfort to be skirted and an insecurity to sublimate on the stage. The Frank Ocean of the early 2010s was insecure about his ability to love and be loved, and thus he performed bravery as a forlorn loverboy with a heart of gold. Whether it’s the pursuit of love and drugs as if they are one in the same or the flightless feeling that permeates channel ORANGE, Ocean’s earliest work is a strong will variety show.
Which is why years removed, we arrive at “Seigfried,” a positively manic moment for Frank Ocean. Here, he is at his most brave and his most insecure. A very hectic nirvana, if you will.
"Seigfried" is a rattling and resonant high tide, where Ocean is shouting for his life, where he is as brave as he isn’t, where he chooses desire over duty. The insecurity at play: the very existence of desires when there are so many regimented paths for a man to follow. To be passionate is to take risks, and passion breeds imposter syndrome. He pays no mind to either. Yet, at his most gnarled and definitive, Ocean declares that he is not brave in the slightest, but that within itself is admirable.
You are braver than you will ever know, Frank.
“Everybody insecure, especially people with everything / Why else you think they got everything? / How else you think they got ev-, ooh / Everybody insecure, especially people with everything / Why else you think they got everything? / How else you think I got every-, look” —Saba, “LOGOUT”
While Blonde opens with a lament over a lack of care, the core aesthetic of Saba’s CARE FOR ME teeters on begging to be cared for. Saba wishes to be cared for because he spent the better part of 2016 running from his mortality, being a superhero on wax, and attempting to live forever with Bucket List Project, only to face tremendous loss. The album was a jubilant celebration, brave in that it indirectly confronted Saba’s looming fear of death, and subsequently ominous in that it would be followed up by an album haunted by the untimely murder of Saba’s cousin John Walt.
Where Bucket List Project was bouncy and laced with spooling summer sun, CARE FOR ME deals in gray tones. The early bravery and underpinning insecurity of BLP has distilled into a pure admission of insecurity and compensation, a look into how Saba can best cope with death and life’s fragility. On “LOGOUT,” Saba paints a sobering portrait of himself as a man, and of all people in the pursuit of their “everything,” be it through Frank Ocean’s younger performances or through plain materialism, or ever-appealing and equally empty clout.
The hues of resignation on “FIGHTER” make it seem as if Saba is a warrior defeated and left for dead on the battlefield. Despondent humming and harmonies give the track a tender touch as Saba recounts all of his physical and emotional squabbles. There’s an airy quality to the track, and space is filled with the sobering pointlessness of it all, of fighting over petty nonsense when real lives are lost. All at once, Saba sounds weightless and shackled, the gravity of loss tethering him to reality.
Saba is brave for laying down his sword, just as he is brave for putting to rest Sisyphean arguments. Of course, this means that he is painfully insecure about his ability to hold his own in a fistfight or be present with a girlfriend who just needs an ear. As kids, we assume that being brave is the act of facing our fears, but the approach changes when you’re scared of who you are and who you’re becoming. To face the fear, you must name the fear, and Saba does so with a poetic spin on “FIGHTER.”
Saba tries to be brave on CARE FOR ME, and in the traditional sense, much like Frank Ocean, he fails. He wallows and seethes and stews, and he lashes out and pounds his chest. But in the truest sense—the plumbing of self-sense—Saba and Frank Ocean are braver than most.
To be brave, you must have a classical villain to stand opposed. To truly be brave, to be a fighter, you must appraise your villain in earnest. In art and in life, as the cards fall, we are our own worst enemies, and thus we must appraise ourselves without pulling punches. We engage in a song and dance of running and masquerading and confessing and lamenting. There is no bravery without insecurity, and as life is a transient thing, there will be fresh insecurity waiting for us after we overcome.
Bravery and insecurity work on a spin cycle, melding and moving together in an altogether frustrating way. But as we see with Saba and Frank Ocean, it seems there is no other way to genuinely grow stronger.
Often, we are at our most brave when we are in tears.