I have a buddy who’s deeply passionate about Zen Buddhism. He’s always telling me, “Desire is the root of all suffering.” While that’s difficult for me to grapple with, the next song in our nostalgia, FOREVER series, makes this platitude quite apparent. You see, Frank Ocean’s “Novacane” is, among other things, a slight at desire and how it destroys our good sense. The song is a five-minute triage of all the ways desire can muddy up the way we interface with our fulfillment. Hidden beneath a straightforward narrative of love found at a festival and lost at the sight of cocaine for breakfast, “Novacane” breaks down all the ways lusting for love and drugs can corrupt our ability to make ourselves whole.
“Novacane” begins with a spiteful tone, as Frank sings, “I got what I wanted” to open the first verse. We start at the end of the narrative, with Frank declaring he got what he wanted, but not what he needed. Opening with a swerve in perspective only becomes evident on subsequent listens. All the same, “Novacane” leads with the sobering conclusion that what brings us temporary joy will not bring us lasting satisfaction. The twinkling flourishes and urging synths, produced by Tricky Stewart, belie a serious tone. Frank has always been a master of dissonance, but on “Novacane,” especially, he hones in on the juxtaposition of lyrical weight and instrumental lightness.
The narrative proper begins once Frank has clarified that he feels nothing for his leading woman. He comes across as deadpan as pop can get, and then we’re sitting on an “ice cold lawn,” falling for the wrong girl at the worst time, with the added kick of getting high. Frank’s trepidation is palpable and leads us into a hook where his desire overtakes him. Putting these two sections in conversation, we get a universal truth from “Novacane”: That which excites us is not always good for us.
Here, the drugs Frank smokes are a metaphor for the allure of desire and how it can get us sprung quickly, though the high rarely lasts. The enigmatic woman tells him to lean into the high before it’s gone because she personifies the fleeting and dastardly nature of desire. The line “Fuck me numb,” wherein Frank admits pursuing passion exclusively, is a one-way ticket to emptiness. The pursuit of externalities to summon happiness is a fruitless mission on “Novacane.” Frank suffers all over this hook because he positions himself to be a victim of desire, instead of giving himself the tools to bring himself lasting happiness. The more you want for something without internal motivation, the greater a chance that something has to hurt you.
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This hurt manifests nicely on the second verse, where Frank details a crumbling relationship through various minutiae. A “sink full of dishes” gives us the impression personal care has gone to the wayside. We’re left with a subtle sense of dread. In the case of “Novacane,” we get the impression desire brings with it the ignoring of the self. We lose who we are in the waves of lust crashing onto our shores. Beneath the undertow of a moot passion, there are only remnants of who we once were. Who we are and can become are nowhere in sight. It’s a total stagnation, as presented by the next line, wherein Frank notes we’re doing coke for breakfast. “Yikes.”
Once more, Frank Ocean plays with space and commas to deliver a simple line with fresh impact. The pause before the yikes leaves us wondering: How does Frank feel about all this severe loss of self? The basic nature of the declarative “Yikes” is nothing short of comedic to the point of being unsettling. We laugh because we are uncomfortable. Frank himself is uncomfortable. We don’t have to assume he’s realized his grand mistake in privileging lust over self-fulfillment. Frank tells us as much later on in verse: “You put me on a feelin’ I never had, never had, never had (Never) / And ever since I’ve been tryna get it back, and pick it up and put it back… I still can’t feel my face.”
We can read the close of the second verse as a cry for help and an admittance. For one, Frank Ocean has come into the consciousness of the fickle nature of lust. Through the drug-laced imagery, we see him fiending after the initial feeling of giving in to desire. Here, the “Desire is the root of all suffering” theme is most apparent. His desperation is harrowing. The lack of feeling in spite of his best efforts to recapture the desire’s magic is depressing. A despondence overtakes the song, breaking all orders of pop sensibility and reminding us Frank cares little for traditional structures. We watch him tumble through the throes of his voluntary suffering. All because he wanted a little taste.
“All the pretty girls involved with me / Making pretty love to me, pretty, pity pity / I can’t feel a thing, can’t feel, can’t feel a thing”—Frank Ocean, “Novacane”
All of this brings us to the outro, wherein Frank continues making the same mistake, but with a fresh self-awareness. The “pity, pity” remark gives us the impression Ocean understands the damned nature of pursuing desire above all else. Yet, he cannot help himself. On “Novacane,” Frank is altogether weak to his desire; he is a victim caught in the clutches of lust. All we can do is learn from his mistakes. For as empty as Frank is and for as little as he feels, we can learn to let go of our desires. We can be greater than our base impulses, to pursue happiness that fuels other happiness.
If there is a lesson to “Novacane,” besides not committing to the girl you pick up at Coachella, it is one of worth and strength. We are always so much more than we give ourselves credit for, always so much stronger. Instead of pursuing temporary joy, we realize we have the tools to make ourselves happy in meaningful and long-term ways. We return to feeling, by looking inward and chasing that which helps us grow into who we have always been. Our best selves lay dormant within our present selves, always available to be accessed. It is not a matter of how, but merely a matter of when.
Desire may be the root of suffering, but there is no written rule saying we must suffer.