The best song’s never the single. As in, the best song—the best tidbit, the heartfelt tidbit, the cathartic tidbit, what have you—is buried within the album. You have to unearth the best song; the artist likely had to fight for its inclusion on the record. And what of the single? It’s the one meant to drive sales. The single is intended to catch our ear, but not necessarily steal our hearts. And what does this mean, really, in the case of Frank Ocean’s “Sweet Life”? Well, dear reader, I’ll tell you: It means the best parts of life will not be handed to you. You have to work for your emotive release. You have to work to feel good, to feel something. That’s what Frank gets at on “Sweet Life,” really. There’s work involved in this life, but it can still be sweet.
“Sweet Life” is a song about wealth and privilege, and the difference between worldly experience and myopia. The subject of “Sweet Life” has had everything handed to them. The imagery on this cut is direct. Everything about the “you” is cushy and breezy. Frank presents himself as a mostly faithful narrator, too, not all-the-way letting on to his feelings about the “you” having a housekeeper and landscaper since birth. It allows us to trust the lessons Frank bakes into “Sweet Life” when we take the time to read into the track.
Opening with “The best song wasn’t the single” sets up “Sweet Life” to be built upon comparisons and compromises. Much of the song asks, “Why this when that?” and forces us to pick a side and subscribe to a worldview. Sure, “Sweet Life” presents a binary way of thinking, but said binary doesn’t take away from Frank’s ultimate goal with the song: Working for happiness. Now, pair the opening line with, “but you weren’t either,” and we get the slightest hint Frank sees the subject of “Sweet Life” as in the wrong. So we have a choice to make from the first full bar of “Sweet Life”: Are we on Frank’s team or the “you”’s team? Of course, we choose Frank.What does choosing Frank come with, you ask? Well, for one, a more severe life than being on the side of the “you.” When Frank sings, “My TV ain’t HD, that’s too real,” we get the sense he doesn’t need the TV to be HD, because reality for Frank is already “too real.” This is a brief note on classism, and forces us to wonder when we consume our media from the comfort of our homes, are we looking in on cultures that have to live this shit? Are we voyeurs while we embark on the detached “Sweet Life?” It’s a very Vince Staples-esque move, and though not the heart of the song, bears importance nonetheless.
Frank jabs at the “you” quickly on the hook, singing “Sweetie pie” to address our subject. We cannot help but glean an acidic touch from the diminutive nature of the pet name. In this moment, Frank positions himself as morally superior to the subject, and we realize picking Frank’s side of the argument is picking the high road. Still, Frank has to sell us on this, which brings us to the second verse and the second invocation of the best song not being the single. This time, that line is paired with an image of the subject indulging in the single, despite its inferiority. We can take this to mean our subject cares little for the fulfillment coming with discovering the best track on an album. They’re contented enough by being fed their shot of audio-dope. Don’t think about it; don’t ask questions; just smile, goes the “you.”
“You’re catching that breeze ‘til you’re dead in the grave,” Frank asserts, as if to say, the subject of “Sweet Life” is going to go comatose from whatever brings them instant gratification. Suddenly, the notion of sweetness takes on a sickly tone. We start to piece together the “Sweet Life” is the numbing life. Ever eat so much candy your teeth ache, your stomach hurts, and you vomit? That’s the “Sweet Life” Frank portrays. Not so sweet, after all.
Now, we can take Frank’s questioning, “So why see the world, when you got the beach?” to be all the more acerbic. Relating to the TV metaphor and our realization of how dastardly the “Sweet Life” really is, this line of the hook is a pointed command to the listener. Frank knows the subject will never step outside the frills of their own life, but the listener still can experience life. Of course, seeing the world does not have to be taken literally. The sentiment here is one of immersing yourself within life, making yourself happy, finding the best song, ignoring the single. Don’t just laze about on the water in your myopia when there’s a full life to be pursued just outside the castle gates.
Frank Ocean warns us the “Sweet Life” is dangerous. When Frank himself indulges in the “Sweet Life” on the bridge (“And the water is exactly what I wanted [Ah] / It’s everything I thought it would be [Thought it would be]”), it’s not without terror. As the neighborhood he slips into descends into disarray, Frank urges us to realize the “Sweet Life” is a mirage. There is no such thing. Life is a consistent battle to keep the self engaged, thrilled, and sustained. Fulfillment doesn’t come from days on the beach, nor does it occur when you husband yourself from the world at large and lead a sheltered existence. Privilege does not beget true happiness.
By the close of the track, we catch Frank’s meaning without much work. The channel ORANGE days are marked by their directness. With that, the “Sweet Life” is not always a truly happy life. The “Sweet Life” is not always a fulfilled life. Frank gets it, and now, so do we.