Toxic love will leave you on your ass. The high never lasts. The high is never worth the decline. You go from barreling through the clouds to face down in the dirt, rife with questions. Namely: How did we get from there to here? And so fast! Crashing down feels unjust and undeserved. But that’s the price you pay for playing with jet fuel. Thankfully, Frank Ocean is no stranger to paying romantic dues. Since 2011’s nostalgia, ULTRA., Frank has been one with love and all its perils. From the most tranquil of loves to letting go of the past and finding yourself, Frank’s pen has, even at the onset of his career, touched upon damn near every corner of love and lovelessness.
Enter: channel ORANGE. It’s 2012 now, Frank is a year wiser, and his hot streak of breaking down the break-up continues. In 2012, on “Pilot Jones,” Frank gives us the definitive three-act unfolding of being in, escaping, and soaring high above a toxic love. In three minutes, “Pilot Jones” takes us from the past to the present and drops us off at a questionable future. Though Frank struggles to the bitter end, his resilience in the face of something as attractive as his “Pilot Jones” remains commendable.
The three acts of “Pilot Jones” can be broken up by their tenses, or by their actual content—intro and verse one; chorus and verse two; chorus and verse three. Before diving into the song itself, we have to stop and admire the fine crafting of “Pilot Jones,” how everything neatly fits into an act. There is no stretching to be done here. “Pilot Jones” is a pristine piece of writing from a then-burgeoning talent. Anyone attempting to pigeon-hole Frank as a meager pop-nB act needs to look at “Pilot Jones” as a sterling example of the young man’s range.
From the first line (“We once had things in common”), Frank establishes the tense setting. We’re in the past, and we know immediately the past was far sweeter than the present. A small, American detail like only sharing the fridge gives us the sense we’re in an old picture, at night, with light from the refrigerator pouring out as two opposing silhouettes navigate around each other. There is no oneness here. Love has all but dissolved. On the song, Frank’s partner is still flying high, but he himself has come down from their love.
“Fly alone,” he tells his partner, rejecting them. Based on the intro, we see Frank’s love has reached a solemn end. There’s a spiteful nature to Frank’s command, too. As if he is flapping his hand in the face of his lover, telling them to just go. Opening on the conflict in the past tense gives us the sense this discord has gone on for some time. With the intro, Frank establishes the lasting toxicity of his decrepit romance. The smallness of the love, the fine detail of the fridge, all these things become brief characters in Frank’s narrative, but they’re not the only ones.
In the first verse of “Pilot Jones,” Frank spends a majority of his writing establishing the character of “Pilot Jones.” Describing them as “the dealer and the stoner” gives us the impression “Pilot Jones” is a firestarter. They’re the one getting Frank all too high, and they get high off their own stash, too. They’re so high, they don’t even realize Frank is falling out of love. They’re so high, they don’t see how they’re culpable of the relationship ending. And yet, “with the sweetest kiss I’ve ever known,” Frank admits to being all the way enthralled by his former partner. Such is the plight of toxic love, how it sticks to us like thick poison gum between the hair on our arms. A bout of conflict to mirror the line about the refrigerator on the intro (“You can’t get up and get a job”) keeps us grounded while Frank juxtaposes basic couple’s dealings with his vast imagery.
The first act of the “Pilot Jones” saga sets us up nicely for the second. We understand where Frank is coming from and are invested in his story. Perhaps we see ourselves in his struggles. Perhaps we’ve known what it means to bite the bitter fruit and enjoy the way the rot coats our tongues. Perhaps not. Either way, the desperation of “the sweetest kiss I’ve ever known” communicates as much to the listener. More importantly, it links us to the chorus and start of the second act, where Frank is increasingly aware of his troubled romance.
“I know what I was on,” Frank sings to open the second act. This line is the first epiphany of “Pilot Jones.” Here, Frank realizes his love is toxic. We’re still in the past, but Frank is coming into himself. As he recounts being taken high then taken home, we come to the ultimate conclusion: toxic love cannot be maintained. With this, we see Frank’s impetus to move on and rebuild himself detached from this broken romance. Consequently, with the introduction of the second verse, we move from past to present as Frank says, “Tonight she came stumblin’ across my lawn again.” In the present, Frank’s chief concern is plodding forward, but with the reappearance of his lover, we get the sense breaking away from a toxic lover is no easy feat.
For as much irreverence as Frank has for his lover by this point in “Pilot Jones,” he struggles to let go fully. “But I ain’t been touched in a while / By the dealer and the stoner / With the sweetest kiss I’ve ever known, ever known,” Frank sings. With this, we are brought back to the first verse, back in time, and we see the true time warp present when trying to escape a toxic love. As much as Frank wants to turn away, the pull of a previous fire keeps him torn. Not only does this moment humanize Frank, but it also reminds us we are works in progress. Clean cuts are nothing to scoff at; they’re downright impossible. Love and the end of love, toxic or not, is messy. Frank positions himself not as better than us, but as merely Frank himself, struggling to let go. How can he truly leave behind what once felt so good?
With this question in mind, the hook preceding the final verse of “Pilot Jones” morphs. We see Frank placing more emphasis, lyrically, on the asides. “Oh, did she now?” Frank asks of himself on the chorus of the song. As in, did she really get you so high? Did it really feel all that good? We see Frank in a transitional moment on this chorus, attempting to strain against the tug of his toxic partner. Will he leave, or won’t he? Such is the excellent tension of “Pilot Jones.”
As we are operating in a three-act structure, though, we know Frank does leave. At least, he tries to. Going into “Pilot Jones,” we expect there to be a resolution. But even then, at the very end, Frank still commits to his humanity, still shows us this damning timewarp, and still keeps himself on our level. First, though, we have the grand soaring of “Pilot Jones,” as Frank Ocean takes note of the sky on the third verse and realizes he can get as high as he’d like all by himself: “I saw the sky like I never seen before.” With this fresh clarity, Frank Ocean gets to bask in himself for a moment. The angle of “Pilot Jones” shifts as we look towards a future wherein Frank can move on and be whole and high without his “Pilot Jones.”
Of course, nothing in life is so simple. For as much as we’d love to see Frank leave his lover and make a break for his wellbeing, he doesn’t get there. “But if I got a condo on a cloud / Then I guess you can stay at my place,” he admits. Meaning, even if Frank were to get himself high, he’d still tap his lover to share the airspace with him. Even when Frank is quite literally above the toxic love, it still attracts him, and he still invites it into his life. So it goes; that’s his “Pilot Jones.” The ending of “Pilot Jones” teaches us to move with humility and empathy because even the best among us can struggle to leave a difficult situation.