When you’re enrapt in darkness, believing in anything feels Herculean. There is a point of depressive thinking where we’re hostage to our emptiness, to our hopelessness. The first time I heard Frank Ocean’s “We All Try,” I was moved, because where I felt so little—and believed in even less—Frank urged me to have faith in the future. It was not about believing in a grand future or massive change, but about understanding that we can work towards goodness just by doing a little every day. We can choose to believe in more. We have that power, no matter how low we sink and how dark it gets in the eye of the storm.
Frank Ocean’s “We All Try” is a reaching and rooting track, broken up into two halves of belief and disbelief. Frank plays with dichotomies to the point of reminding us of the importance of having faith. We get a taste of his political leanings, sure, but the triumph of “We All Try” comes in the byproduct of putting time machines up against belief in your fellow man. His goal here is to demystify belief in the self and goodness. When you’re low, believing in a better tomorrow may seem fantastical, bordering on silly. But in Frank’s second verse, he rattles off truly chimerical beliefs to shock us to attention.
Time travel, space conquest, the simpleness of life, the brevity of it, are all things that feel impossible to ascertain in the mind. Sniffling—or maybe that’s just me—the listener agrees. Time travel is crazy, who could believe in that?
In the first verse, Frank’s begging us to believe in “something, something.” Pair this with the hook, where he sings of believing in his fellow man for humanity is always trying, and we get the message of “We All Try.” That is, believing in the greater good is nothing short of rational. When the dust settles, believing in the goodness of the self and humanity might be the only concept worth leaning into.
Frank suggests as much through his delivery. Holding the “o” during the “something, something” portion of the first verse, we get the sense he’s desperate for us to be on his side. He repeats the same in the second verse. It sounds as if we’re taking off when we reach the hook, with Frank’s vocal floating above the mix. His brief stutter leads to another long note on the “try, try” section, mirroring the energy of the “something, something”s of the verses. These minute details impress upon us the importance of Frank’s message. It sounds as if getting us on his side is life or death for Frank. We can hear how crucial the track is to Frank, eschewing any critique of his being sentimental and pedantic for the sake of creating an anthemic tune.
“We All Try” is a communicative track; the halves are in conversation with one another. Within that conversation, too, Frank Ocean is speaking to us. Look at the first verse and how Frank dedicates the final three bars to reaching out to the listener. This little chat picks up on the tail-end of the second verse, where Frank sings, “Can't believe that you would let me touch your heart.” Now, we’re working with layers of disbelief. For one, Frank Ocean is stunned by the listener’s aversion to being moved by his words. Taken another way, Frank refuses to believe we won't listen to him. Here, he is a born optimist.
Frank cannot believe we’re beyond saving, because it would make his work moot. So, he doesn’t believe it. Instead, Ocean ends the second verse the same as the first, by impressing upon us the importance of believing in anything through trying times. Frank Ocean rarely plays preacher directly, and we can turn to the second verse for why Ocean felt so emboldened as to release such a forthright track.
“She didn’t believe me when I said that I lost my faith,” he sings. The whole perspective of the verse and the track flips here. Instead of looking at what Frank does not believe in, as is the mode of verse two, our “you” subject now cases Frank Ocean. The skepticism of the “She” leaves us with a few impressions. For one, it upholds our theory of “We All Try,” being a song talking to itself. Secondly, we get a clearer image of the narrative of the cut. That is, in the realm of the song, Frank Ocean is speaking from a pointed place of assurance.
Finally, the line reveals Frank has also suffered from a lack of faith in greater goodness. This is critical, as it brings Frank down to the level of the listener—where he thrives. We understand the urgency of the track now. Frank has been there, has been down, and he doesn’t want us to muddle about in a bad place.
“I still believe in man / A wise one asked me why / Cause I just don’t believe we’re wicked / I know that we sin but I do believe we try / We all try, the girls try, the boys try / Women try, men try, you and I try, try, we all try”—Frank Ocean, “We All Try”
So much of the ethos of “We All Try” unfurls and mutates on the hook. Following the first verse, hanging on the “still” of the hook, we get the sense the chorus is Frank singing about his enduring faith. A faith rooted in working a little more each day. The clear message of “We All Try” is about pacing yourself as you recover. Trying keeps and amplifies goodness. Recovery is not so much about the end goal as it is about the grueling task of pushing yourself a touch more every single day. It sucks—it fucking sucks—but there is no life to be had without arduous process and applied effort. Frank makes it seem easy, and he should. Because of the repetition of the hook, we hold on the phrase “we all try” until we believe Ocean.
Now, following the second verse, and scanning the outro, we realize the hook is the byproduct of overcoming doubt. The “wise one” becomes the “She” of verse two, and we see the narrative expanding even more. The full story of “We All Try” goes as follows: Frank sees depressed “She”; Frank encourages her; “She” questions Frank’s perspective; Frank reveals he has been in her shoes. By the outro, we all believe there is more to life than our depressive episodes. It’s an elegant and compelling story.
The outro is a fascinating swerve because we never honestly know who is speaking when Frank delivers the line: “I do believe.” The ambiguity is essential, if only because it shows the natural ubiquity of belief. You do not have to be in Frank’s position to believe. You do not have to be in the listener’s job to believe. You can be anywhere on the spectrum of depressive thought or lucid thought to believe in a better tomorrow.
Anyone can hold “We All Try” close to their heart. Across the journey of the track, we go from being encouraged by Frank to standing shoulder to shoulder with him. The song is a comment on humanity. By warping our sense of belief and disbelief, by playing with the dichotomy of reasonable and not, Frank forces us to reassess what we view as our truth.
The reality of “We All Try” is a bright one, and Frank Ocean is kind enough to share the light with us.