Life can be tiresome. For all the highs, there are just as many—if not more—lows to provide balance and keep us humble. The future is random, and life simply is, meaning we never know what life will bring us. For this reason, we tend to fixate on the past and fear the coming days. Sometimes, living in the past can be a great source of coping. Nostalgia is a potent medicine. Other times, holding onto past days slows our progress and emotional growth. It’s not easy knowing when to deal and when to trudge ahead. Forward motion can be terrifying.
These are the stakes of Frank Ocean’s ghostly “Dust,” a cut focused on appraising the past as a means of heading off into the future. The song is something of a twisted fairytale. As with the majority of nostalgia, ULTRA., Frank Ocean braces himself and appears fearless on the cut. He stands tall and doles out lessons directly here, using metaphor to his advantage, along with some useful direct address. Set in a library, “Dust” features some of Frank’s most direct and hopeful messaging. Following “Swim Good,” we get a complete narrative thread. We’ve just bid farewell to heartbreak, and now we’re in a position to bid farewell to our past.
With that, we open on a question: “Who’s that talking in the library?” Of course, the library image is a metaphor for the collection of our life’s experiences, with the books all housing different eras of our lives—the pages all housing our tragedies and victories. The talker in question is an enigmatic “you” Frank pities and calls muse. We can gather the “you” is a nervous talker, someone uneasy in the face of their culminated past. Or, perhaps, someone all too comfortable. Either way, there’s a disconcerted air to the visitor. Regardless, they are partly Frank’s inspiration for all the words he’s penned. This positions the “you” to be two things: our great struggle to let go of the past, and Frank’s fuel to do just that.
“Nothing special, every book in here I wrote / Some I’m not too proud of some I wish I could burn / So many pages I wrote, wish I could revise them”—Frank Ocean, “Dust”
Here, Frank demonstrates he is as flawed as his listener, and as the “you.” Continually humanizing himself is an extraordinary songwriter’s quality. At this stage in his career, we’ve yet to look up to Frank Ocean as a musician-turned-Demigod. Looking back on the track, knowing who Frank has become, it’s nice to see the humility in his message. Frank is no better than us; he is only a man. Returning to the “you,” it feels as if Frank Ocean is trying to soothe the visitor, giving credence to our assumption that “you” and listeners are closer than they appear. In that breath, Frank concludes the first verse with some salient advice: “Keep writing and keep living, and keep loving.”
Then we have the hook, where we realize we’ll turn to dust as our life’s pages turn to dust. As in, everything ends, and it’s best not to muse upon the past. Putting everything together, we get the central theme of the track: We cannot live life without letting go of the past. We must leave the good and the bad behind us. We must accept life’s mistakes, and we must cherish our previous joys, but we cannot hold on to either if we wish to keep filling the pages of our books. It’s better to have a library’s worth of books turn to dust than to leave one page of writing in our collective wakes.
Following the first hook, we’re back in the library. Frank amplifies the nervous energy of the first verse; now, the “you” is laughing. At this point, Frank identifies the “you” as a lover, which could upset our reading if not for the fact “Dust” has no other love song tropes. Instead, we return to “Swim Good,” and how we left heartbreak behind us. The end of that track puts us on a beach, and in the lore of Frank Ocean, let’s imagine we wandered from beach to library. That is, this visitor is the girl who broke our hearts on “Swim Good.” We’ve dealt with her before. Meaning, the “you” can still represent a penchant to hold on to the past. As Frank stands in his library and recounts his life, this girl pops up and tests his ability to move forward. Frank does not let her win.
At this point, we reach the great conflict of “Dust.” The girl in the library pulls Frank back into his past. He quits writing, as in he quits pursuing his future. There’s a torn page and a flame set. Any progress Frank made away from this “you” has been removed. This turn of events is tragic, especially with the preceding verse now evidently talking about the relationship he and this girl shared. Where on the first verse, he says he cannot erase his past, the girl has appeared to take hold of Ocean and burn down his future. It’s macabre but enchanting in a way. The imagery is potent, the production labyrinthian.
As Frank sings, “I kept living, I kept loving,” there’s a desperation to his delivery. As if he means to say: I did everything right, why is the past still haunting me? We get no answer. Frank Ocean does not win his battle with the past. The hook returns, and the song fades. There is no resolution. So what do we make of “Dust”? Well, we can certainly learn from a young Frank Ocean. Where he becomes entirely consumed by his past despite the progress he’s made toward the future, we can take his advice from the first verse and stick to it. We can brush off the past—however painful that may be—and keep living, loving, and writing our future.
Even though fearless Frank Ocean succumbs to his past indulgences, we can be better. Before turning to dust, we can write a thousand tomes with a million experiences flooding the pages. We can make this life beautiful. Our libraries will be oh so full.