How do we balance having fun with getting ours? Simple: We don’t. A job is a job, a passion is a passion, and blending the two inevitably results in complications. Frank Ocean’s “Songs 4 Women” tackles this phenomenon as one of the more raw cuts on his 2011 debut mixtape, nostalgia, ULTRA..
“Songs 4 Women” is a blithe tune about the balance between making music to get at love and loving to make music. When your passion becomes your job, Frank sings, how do you keep the passion going? Of course, the job of a heartthrob is to “get at women,” but when that job overtakes your mental, how can you enjoy the fruits of your labor? These are the central questions of the song.
“Songs 4 Women” opens with a question, too. Frank begins in a state of concern, wondering if he’s singing for the right reasons, or if he’s singing “‘cause that’s what the bitches wanted.” The first verse is concerned with Frank’s conquests, and the small details of the girl’s car, the bus, riding shotgun and waiting for the parents to be gone, situate us in the throes of blissful high school days. These are the days where taking up space felt risky, where love was hyperbolic, and everything about every shared moment was thought on wistfully. Here, we get the sense there’s nothing better than singing for women. Nothing can go wrong—until it does.
The second verse introduces our conflict. “Now I’m in the lab, always working late / Always sleeping past the breakfast she makes,” Frank details. Slowly but surely, he’s lost his passion and turned singing into work for the sake of love. With that energy evaporated from Frank’s work, the girl of the track has moved on from Frank Ocean and is bumping Drake’s new shit. By the end of the second verse, we get the sense Frank’s pursuits of music were all for nothing—only because he pursued music for all the wrong reasons. It’s a quick lesson in keeping vision and staying grounded, but it’s precious as well. The angst bubbles over on the outro, where Frank airs his frustrations and stays the course. These are all songs for women. It’ll work out; eventually, he hopes.
“She used to stop by, come and holla at me / Put her purse down and try to battle rap me / She don’t do that no more, no more, no more / Don’t even listen to the songs I record”—Frank Ocean, “Songs 4 Women”
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With that, “Songs 4 Women” is also about the fallout of being in love for love’s sake. We have the whole second verse as our prime example. Again, Frank leans on imagery to tell his tale. The purse detail is a special one, signifying the woman of the track has settled into her life with Frank. It makes the following line about her absence all the more cutting. We miss her and her purse. Quite literally, she is gone, and so is her discerning ear. We get the sense there was never love in the first place. It was all about the feeling of being in love, but not the love itself.
Within this fallout, too, there are layers. “Songs 4 Women” is not accidentally one of the most fun and ironic tracks on nostalgia, ULTRA.. The song pictures Frank as a young man and not the prophetic soul he grows up to be. The song imagines Frank as nothing more than a schoolyard boy snapping and singing to pick up girls and raise his acumen as a young man. Those very girls break his heart like it’s nothing. There’s a balance of power that should be missing from the narrative of boy-meets-girl. It’s progressive, and it’s a touch funny, given Frank’s coming out as bisexual.
Unraveling the cut even further, we find Frank slyly attacking toxic masculinity. You see, much of the women-chasing on “Songs 4 Women” feels like a joke. There’s an air of you-can’t-be-serious humor surrounding the song. The hook’s final lines—“You’d be singin’ to her, like lah dah-dah, dah-dah / Lah dah-dah, dah-dah, lah dah-dah, dah-dah”—amplify this point. Frank’s crackling delivery is the furthest thing from serious; he sounds like he’s mocking his efforts to pursue women. He sounds like he’s mocking the whole institution of love for love’s sake. We get the sense Frank Ocean thinks this entire business is ridiculous.
Just listen to the morphing quality of the hook. With the first iteration of the chorus, Frank confidently declares “Yeah” when asked if he sings songs to get at women. By the second, after realizing how fruitless his endeavors were, he morosely says, “Naw.” This tiny shift paints a vivid picture, one of the processes of losing love and losing passion. Frank shows us no one wins when games are played. Everything has to come from a pure place to be lasting. Neither Frank’s girl nor his work endures. It’s heartbreaking, as Frank declares on the second hook, but he did this to himself.
The irony jumps out in full force on the close of the second hook. “Now I’m singing lah dah, dah-dah ‘bout heartbreak / And now I’m singing lah dah, dah-dah 'bout love lost.” There are a handful of subtle changes here to advance our point—for one, Frank transitions from songs about love to songs about heartbreak, which is a telegraph for the rest of his illustrious career. In retrospect, this line is some heavy foreshadowing. Secondly, the vocal fry of the first chorus is gone. Now working from a place of genuine feeling, Frank’s seriousness and polish are back. He’s showing us he’s down for music for passion’s sake. It’s a worthy pivot that gives “Songs 4 Women” an additional thematic body.
In the end, “Songs 4 Women” is as comical as it is a serious warning for all artists. We chuckle as Frank chases women, clearly unconcerned. Then we worry with him as his work overtakes him in an unhealthy way. We leave with this: Make art and make love for the love of the process, not for any external reward. The moment your art begins to look outside of itself, that’s the moment the passion dies. With the death of passion comes the death of quality, and without either, we wonder why we’re making art in the first place.
Suddenly, the disinterest of the girl morphs as the hook does. We realize the leading woman here is a metaphor for Frank’s interest in his art. “Songs 4 Women” sets up a meta-narrative whereas Frank toils for validation’s sake, his interest in creation wanes. Somewhere between Frank’s vocal fry and his smooth “lah dah, dah-dah, dah” we realize there’s no point in writing songs for women. We’re better off writing songs for ourselves.