The Frank Ocean Song for Making Peace with Your Past

On “Nikes,” the opening track from his second studio album ‘Blonde,’ Frank Ocean must simply be.
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When Frank Ocean’s Blonde dropped in 2016, I was in an apartment in Bushwick, Brooklyn. My then-girlfriend, her roommate, her roommate’s boyfriend, and I all gathered around my girlfriend’s laptop, and we eagerly pressed play on the channel ORANGE follow-up. When the first notes of “Nikes” rang out, when we heard Frank’s pitched vocal, we lost our minds. “Nikes” was more than music; this was something we had never experienced. I had never shared an album with so many people before—at once. I never felt so much love and reverence bubble up in a room before this moment. We were all laid out on my girlfriend’s bed, listening to Blonde and reacting as if this was our first time feeling anything at all. It was a monumental moment; it is a memory for a lifetime.

When I think of Blonde, I think of those times in that apartment. I think of that Brooklyn summer, and I think of endings. “Nikes,” too, is about endings. The most painful line on “Nikes” is as follows: “I’m not him, but I’ll mean something to you.” Meaning, “Nikes” is a song about understanding the edges of a relationship, convenience, and principle. Meaning, the “Nikes” summer was the summer of what was and what wasn’t. What simply could not be. It was the summer of meaning everything and nothing to someone significant to me. It was the summer of meaning everything and nothing to myself. It was, headed into the fall, the time of learning to love who I am and understanding what I deserve.

I speak so obtusely because, four years on, it’s still hard for me to wrap my mind around what “Nikes” means to me. As a song, it’s fairly direct. The song opens with a commentary on materialism and wanting frivolous things. The song evolves into a commentary on how frivolous desire can be when it comes to the physical pleasures, and concludes with Frank’s heartbreaking admission that he isn’t enough for his lover, but he’ll do just fine. In Frank’s canon, this song fits perfectly. “Nikes” is textbook Frank Ocean. We love him for this familiarity, how each song has echoes of his past songs ringing through them as he treads new ground.

The only way to appreciate “Nikes” is to zero-in on what this song does to the human heart. Starting with the first verse, we could pick apart any moment as the moment. There’s the notes on Trayvon Martin, the notes on artists we lost too soon, the notes on drugs and lives lost in that sphere. But it’s the end of the first verse of “Nikes” that summons tears: “He don’t care for me, but he cares for me / And that’s good enough / We don’t talk much or nothin’/ But when we talkin’ about something / We have good discussion / I met his friends last week / Feels like they’re up to somethin’/That’s good for us.”

Poet Tommy Pico has a great moment in his latest book, FEED, where he expounds upon the moment two people in a failing relationship look at each other, know the relationship is dying, know it should end now, but are both too scared to make the first move. He spends much of the book talking about the importance of letting something go derelict before it can bloom again. That’s this Frank Ocean verse: the significance of the atrophy. The death of love, before the birth of a “real love.”

“Nikes” lives, firstly, in that space of contradiction. How Frank can sing over such an opulent tune about the damning nature of opulence itself; how he can declare the existence and absence of care with one flick of the tongue. Perhaps most exciting, though, is how we know exactly what he means. We feel Frank Ocean like we have never felt him before. We know what it means to be loved for and not loved at once; we know the pain of living in the space of that emotional divide. We know what it means to settle for the time being. We know about the easy way out of being the loneliest star in the sky.

The motif of there-and-gone continues on the second verse of “Nikes,” where Frank opines: “I know that your n***a came with you / But he ain’t with you.” What does it mean to both be and not? Frank seems to ask. Especially in dealings of love, how can you both be present and also a specter in your own love affair? This is how: because love is messy, disgusting, and often dishonest. Not out of malice, but simply because we do not know any better. That’s what Frank seems to say in the first half of verse two, with lines like: “Don’t know what got into people / Devil be possessin’ homies.”

Of course, the emotional pinnacle of “Nikes” comes on the closing bridge. Frank’s final plea, where he recites: “I may be younger but I’ll look after you /We’re not in love but I’ll make love to you.” This pair of lines set up so many songs on Blonde; the piece would become a tracklist reading if I were to list them all. Take in how cutting this final admission is: to share a body and have no interest in the sum of its parts. It’s not fucking and walking away; it’s making love without the essence of love. It’s a heartier pain Frank puts forward. To look after someone as opposed to cherishing them, to share, but not dive in, all of these “but”’s are the pain of “Nikes.” Of course, Frank elicits pain so well.

The feat of “Nikes” is the fact Frank wrote the song at all. Whatever inspired “Nikes” was highly emotional, and to have the space to step away from those times, to write to times so poignantly, is something only our own Frank Ocean could pull off so splendidly. “Nikes,” then, is proof Frank Ocean has made peace with his past—as is all of Blonde, as is Frank’s literary career. There must be a necessary appreciation of Frank’s past for him to be able to transform it into the art of his present day. He cannot be bitter, for that would taint the music. He must simply be, an observer by any other name. And he is. He nails it—like always.

With that in mind, at its core, “Nikes” reminds me of simpler times. “Nikes” reminds me of simpler loves and easier endings. “Nikes” reminds me, more than anything, of who I was and how far I’ve come. Every time I hear Frank announce that the bitches do, in fact, want Nikes, I remember one of the happiest times of my life—and I remember it fondly. I don’t have a bitter taste for my past anymore, I’ve grown beyond that. If anything, Blonde, as a whole, has taught letting go of the past to embrace the past is the best course of action. I hear “Nikes;” I feel better. “Living so the last night feels like a past life,” Frank says in the second verse. I appreciate my past lives. I appreciate any life at all.

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