Heartbreak can be spectacular. The grandiosity of it. The way it overtakes us at once and then in waves for years to come is nothing short of awe-striking. Few things rattle the entire body the way heartbreak does. Few things feel as impossible, too. But for Frank Ocean, overcoming heartbreak is a matter of driving off the ledge into feeling. Overcoming is a matter of allowing himself to experience heartbreak to its natural end. He does not wallow. He maintains motion, and he takes us along for the journey.
That is the story of “Swim Good,” one of the deceptively darker cuts off Frank Ocean’s career-making mixtape, nostalgia, ULTRA. The imagery is direct, the metaphors clear. We’re barreling deep into the ocean, and we are not looking back. No looking down, no stalling out. “Swim Good” is not an emotive swan song. It is the promise of new beginnings. For as dark as the vocal tone and production are, Frank Ocean is bidding farewell to his heartbreak. What we have here is a subtly hopeful tune. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. It’s best to start at the beginning.
Looking at the first verse, Frank quickly establishes the heartbreak motif. He also establishes himself as the heartbreak Lorax; he speaks for us all. “That’s a pretty big trunk on my Lincoln town car, ain’t it? / Big enough to take these broken hearts and put ’em in it / Now I’m drivin’ ‘round on the boulevard, trunk bleedin’,” Frank sings. We can picture it so clearly, him zipping ‘round town, collecting damaged hearts and speaking to wounded souls. He’s not playing coroner, but usher. We don’t see it yet, but he’s taking these broken hearts to a better place. Here, Frank establishes we should trust him, and we do.
The pivotal funeral imagery comes on the pre-chorus. It is at this point we have a choice. We can read this as a purely morose track wherein Frank bemoans the killer qualities of heartbreak to the point of driving himself mad. Or, we can see the light in Frank’s approach. “Five more miles ’til the road runs out,” he croons. As we splash into the waters and ditch our car, we have the choice to take in the goodness of Frank’s writing. You see, we’re not drowning on the hook, we’re actively moving forward. It’s a funeral to heartbreak itself, not a funeral for Frank’s broken heart.
“I’m about to drive in the ocean / I’mma try to swim from somethin’ bigger than me / Kick off my shoes and swim good, and swim good / Take off this suit and swim good, and swim good, good”—Frank Ocean, “Swim Good”
The chorus on “Swim Good” boasts some of nostalgia, ULTRA’s most effective use of metaphor and theme. Here, Frank acknowledges the breadth and depth of heartbreak, represented by the vastness of the water. He notes the sensation is more significant than he is, and yet he is unafraid. Frank Ocean does not let the weight of a broken heart sink him. Instead, he frees himself. He swims good. In removing the suit, thus concluding the funeral, Frank suggests we should free ourselves of our pain and keep moving forward. The backing organ of the verse is replaced by vaulting, bright keys. The song vibrates, and the momentum of Frank’s emotional growth drives the track.
With that, the image of the suit morphs on the second verse, leading into the second pre-chorus. “If I feel like a Ghost, no Swayze / Ever since I lost my baby,” Frank concludes on the second verse, leading us into the suit on the following bar. Now, we’re working death into the picture. Supposedly, Frank’s heartbreak already killed him. The funeral suit was, indeed, for his funeral. But he didn’t go through with it. He only notes he’s “ready for a funeral,” but never does he tell us he’s thrown himself a pity party. This position makes the shedding of the suit even more powerful on the next hook. We go from having a potential funeral in the face of heartbreak to watching Frank emerge undefeated.
So much of our reading of Frank’s emotional strength becomes emboldened by the bridge. The tension of the bridge suggests someone attempting to stop Frank from driving his car into the ocean—imagine that. They seem to be urging him to at least shoot off flares to cite where he is, to at least wear a life vest, to at least do something for his safety. No matter, Frank Ocean enters the water fearlessly. There’s power in that decision. “And no fear / Waves are washin’ me out,” he concludes. What we’re witnessing is an emotive baptism. Frank is allowing his emotions to cleanse him. He’s not fighting the tide. He’s living through his pain, realizing this is the only path to healing.
Heartbreak drives “Swim Good,” but it does not overtake the tune. Frank is motivated to grow because, ostensibly, his heartbreak made him hit rock bottom—the only time people genuinely change. Using the ocean as a metaphor for the seemingly endless vat of emotions heartbreak throws us into, Frank Ocean makes the feeling into something to be moved with, not fought against. This approach is how we overcome heartbreak, by facing it head-on and running alongside it. Frank’s not doggedly swimming upstream. He’s not doggy-paddling for his life. There’s a peace to Frank’s movement and the movement of the piece. When you follow your emotions to their natural end, Frank asserts, you survive.
After driving off into the ocean, the song concludes with us ashore. By the end of “Swim Good,” we’re stronger than our heartbreak. The sound of waves crashing and seagulls chirping overtakes the instrumental. We’ve made it to land, the promised land. We’ve swum away from what hurts us, and we’ve made it to greener pastures. We did not drown in our sorrow. “Swim Good” is the perfect overcoming track because it outlines the process of enduring pain. Once the beat breaks in the final 30 seconds, our relief feels earned. Frank Ocean uses “Swim Good” to prove himself a master of writing about love and loss from every angle. And he only gets better from here.