A Frank Ocean Song for the Darkness of Coming of Age

“We’re behaving like teenagers.”
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I often wonder why we have an age-limit on recklessness. Eventually, we all are expected to age out of poor decisions, shape up, and come into our own as responsible people capable of thinking things through. Right? How often, though, does it work that way? We are soft and messy things; we are people. The greatest lie ever told in literature is that the coming of age novel can only take place from adolescence to adulthood—as if we do not come of age multiple times throughout our lives, as if there is a cap on learning and maturing. I know people in their thirties drinking like college students. I know self-serious kids. We all do. We come of age in the face of hardship, not when our biological clocks strike “old.”

Such is the theme of channel ORANGE’s second proper song, “Sierra Leone.” Commonly looked at as the tale of unwanted pregnancy, I propose we look at what it means to grow old, lust after youth, and never entirely shed our desire to be self-destructive. “Sierra Leone” may well be about unprotected sex and child-rearing, but it also has the potential to be about the constant coming of age we all embark on as living, dynamic people. “Sierra Leone” is a humbling tune casting a light on how we grow on a curve. We’re never quite done becoming ourselves.

In this spirit, “Sierra Leone” opens with recklessness. There is sex and the obsession of sex (“We’re spending too much time alone”), and there is a lack of good sense, too (“I just ran outta Trojans”). Frank sets the scene when he asserts he and his lover are behaving like teenagers. We get the impression adulthood is a far-off fiction in this song’s narrative. We get the impression the Frank of “Sierra Leone” has yet to come of age, and yet, he’s having the time of his life. You see, “Sierra Leone” is stunning. Produced by Malay, the instrumentation twinkles and glistens over pensive percussion. Frank hits high notes with ease, his heart spilling out and staining our own.

Per usual, “Sierra Leone” takes place in childhood bedrooms, a motif Frank employed all over nostalgia, ULTRA.. This summoning of innocence and youth brings us deep into our feelings and has us casing our memories. Setting his songs in the throes of teenage lust and wonderment allows Frank to tap into our collective unconscious and hook us. We remember what it was like to toss around in a twin bed with our high school sweethearts and think our love would last forever. We remember the thrill of sneaking in a quicky while our parents were away. The rush of puppy love never wavering as we huddled beneath a multi-colored comforter.

The first half of “Sierra Leone” features Frank pining after his youth, and the more straightforward and more carefree times. The times where we did not have to think twice in the face of pleasure. We simply did. And it felt so right. The first half of the track details what we miss once we grow old and come of age. It also details how our youth pushes us to grow, for our recklessness spawns the mistakes which shape us into the people we were always meant to be.

With that, for all the notions of adolescent pleasure, “Sierra Leone” is not without its terror. You see, we quickly age out of these wiles. We find our deeper meaning within the contrasts of the first and second verses of “Sierra Leone.” As we transition into the second verse, “tidbits of intuition” begin to bubble up, and Frank realizes he’s made a grave mistake fooling around. Now he’s wrestling with his knowhow and his passion for pleasure: “Abandon mission, you must be kiddin’, this shit feelin’ different / Shit feelin’ too good to me.” We already know the problem of letting pleasure overtake our logic, as on “Novacane,” but what happens when pleasure leads to consequences?

Consequences themselves are the catalyst for coming of age. As the song breaks down and Frank begins his breathy raps to enter the second movement of “Sierra Leone,” we realize coming of age is dark and heady. Now there is a child at play; there is responsibility and life to answer for. Where there was once worry-free satisfaction, there is now a fresh depth. As the narrative goes, Frank assumes responsibility for the child, singing a “Lennon lullaby” and laying the child to bed. Before the song’s close, though, we get the meat of “Sierra Leone” in a single bar: “Baby girl, if you knew what I know, knew what I know.”

Here, “Baby girl” refers to both the child and the woman in question. To the former, Frank suggests he’s come a long way and has come of age as a man, now tending to a daughter. Being that Frank has an absentee father, as we learn on “There Will Be Tears,” his involvement in his fictional daughter’s life is monumental. It signals Frank Ocean has matured beyond his roots; he has goodness on his spirit in ways unavailable to him when he was growing up. The essence of coming of age: Stepping into a self that is better and more emotionally available than the selves past.

Now, to the woman, Frank poses a dichotomy. He is a more matured man, but being that he has to repeat himself to the mother of his child, we get the impression she does not share in his growth. From this, we glean the isolating nature of coming of age and growing up. Everyone matures at their own pace, and when you out-pace those you love, it becomes difficult to maintain relationships. Think about the last falling out you had with a close friend, and how it felt like it was no one’s fault, just the trials of circumstance and aging. The secondary message Frank sends with the final words of “Sierra Leone”: Coming of age will leave you lonely, be prepared.

Quietly, “Sierra Leone” highlights what it means to grow old. You take on new weights; you carry new burdens. Age comes for us all in one way or another, be it emotionally taxing or the presence of modern life. The fact that “Sierra Leone” appropriately concludes with Frank Ocean aimlessly hitting gorgeous notes implies he is musing on all that he has come to know. It’s a moment of reflection disguised as a vocal exercise. Yet another outcome of growing up: You spend too much time alone, this time, with your thoughts. As Frank thinks through the final mumbles of the track, we have to wonder if he’s content. Perhaps he will fuck up again, maybe not. We never really know all that we can know, we only try.

“Sierra Leone”’s imagery—from the “pink skies” to the “crying babe”—is self-evident, but the lesson of the track is less so. Coming of age is thorny and nonlinear, requires adversity, and almost always leaves you with a tighter inner circle. The consequences of our child-like recklessness push us to be better people. The fictional Frank of “Sierra Leone” comes of age and becomes a better man than his father. He shows us recklessness does not always have to lead to our demise. Though anyone is poised to make a destructive choice, there are brighter paths still sprouting from our decisions. We just have to choose to walk them.

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