Sometimes, we’re blindsided by the right person at the wrong time. Sometimes, we’re in awe of the worst person at the best time. Sometimes, love feels like fine grains of sand sifting between our fingers. How pointless it is to tighten our fists, and yet we cannot let go. Each grain falling and piling up between our feet. And as we look at the pile of sand we so foolishly tried to grasp, we recall every lover now gone from our lives, and how they slipped through our hands despite our best efforts. Each and every past love bubbles up at once on Frank Ocean’s “Ivy,” from his 2016 sophomore album Blonde, and we’re reminded of the sweet-turned-sour venture of laying out our hearts and giving ourselves over to the blithest of feelings.
“Ivy” is a special song for how it initially looks into the past without bitterness. In place of anger and resentment, perhaps even regret, we have hard honesty. Take the line “We’ll never be those kids again”—which haunts me at every turn as I grow older and navigate my 20s—and its sincerity. The line is not inherently dismal, but the heavy truth of time moving ever-forward colors the lyric just enough to elicit a broken emotional response. “Ivy” is a fucking sad song, man. But we make it sad, because we’ve lived it, and each rush of memory is another moment of realizing time stammers forward, and we can do nothing to stop it.
Perhaps this realization is why “Ivy” sounds so sweet, because memories come in waves, and some are more welcome than others. The production, handled by Om’Mas Keith, Frank Ocean, and Rostam, is beachy and serene. There’s a youthful energy to the chords and Frank’s gently pitched vocal. We open with such a becoming thought: “I thought that I was dreamin’ when you said you love me.” This is the first wave of memory, the nostalgic moment where everything feels peachy and pastel pink in our minds. We all know the rift in time of that first “I love you,” how everything ceases to be, and the world blooms anew because someone has deemed us special. “Ivy” thrives in that rift, makes meaning of the suddenly imposed springtime.
Yet, even as Frank relishes his past loves, he has to apply the truth of his present moment. That is, the past does not actually look good on anyone. The past is home to our mistakes and uglier selves. Frank admits to this when he sings, “I could hate you now / It’s quite alright to hate me now,” as if to say: I can’t seem to shake you, past lover, and I would understand quite well if you only remember me for the man I was not. To suggest, “It’s quite alright to hate me now” is to grow, though. In this chorus, Frank Ocean shows us his emotional ascent, shows us he is a better man than he once was, and he can deal with the fresh hatred from a former lover, if only because he knows he is better now.
These contrasts of past and present make the closing of the beginning chorus all the more emotive. As Frank sings, “When we both know that deep down / The feeling still deep down is good,” we get the sense Frank thinks of his past love often enough to make decisions for the both of them. He thinks of this love often enough to have the feelings they gave him fresh and potent on his tongue. He may say “deep down,” but we know Frank’s keeping this former lover in his accessible memory. And so we begin “Ivy” by wondering, who are the lovers we have never forgotten? We wonder: Who are the lovers who worm themselves into our present without our asking? Everyone has one, it seems.
Frank only complicates matters further on the first verse, detailing: “If I could see through walls, I could see you’re faking / If you could see my thoughts, you would see our faces.” The second bar here is most important, for it affirms our reading of the hook. That is, Frank’s mind is entirely consumed by his past love, as indicated by “our faces” being the most prominent of his thoughts. The first line works to establish the narrative of the relationship, how it is failing pretty spectacularly before Frank’s very eyes, how he is powerless in that fact, how reality and sight are blurring. Frank sees his partner faking their love, but he also sees his face clearly in his thoughts. What is real? What is fantasy? And, too, what is the fantasy of “Ivy?”
As the verse progresses, we get the sense Frank’s ultimate fantasy involves the past. No, Frank does not want to return to the past, his repeating “We’ll never be those kids again” throughout “Ivy” signifies a type of peace with the fact. Moreover, “Everything sucked back then.” Instead, the fantasy feels like a desire to relive the past as the man of the present. Frank doesn’t want to be a kid again; he wants a second chance at his former love while being the man he is today.
To this point, we look at the whole of the second verse, but particularly “Arm around my shoulder so I could tell / How much I meant to you, meant it sincere back then / We had time to kill back then.” Here, sincerity is painted as a time-killer. If there is one regret in “Ivy,” then, it is that Frank never showed his true emotions during the relationship. His partner was clearly trying, but was Frank? This question haunts the remaining minutes of “Ivy.”
This question brings us to the bridge, to the end of the affair. Frank concludes the relationship. Pacing back for a moment, we now realize why Frank can so easily look back on the romance and see it through the rosy lens: He was the one to end it, he didn’t have his heartbroken. The final line of the bridge—“Screamin’ my name, the feeling deep down is good”—holds all the cards. An interpolation of the last line of the hook, here we get some double-images. For one, screaming out Frank’s name probably alludes to the couple’s sexual past. Secondly, it speaks to a shattering image of a fight to tip off the break-up, or one caused by the break-up itself. And yet, “The feeling deep down is good,” as in this break-up is for the best. Frank knows it to be so. He is totally at peace with the relationship falling apart.
Or is he? “Ivy” reveals one final turn on the outro. Here, Frank expresses deep remorse (“All the things I didn’t mean to say, I didn’t mean to do”) and obsession (“I’ve been dreamin’ of you, dreamin’ of you”) followed by a complete sonic-cum-emotional breakdown when he realizes what he has lost. The final clattering moments of “Ivy” expose the song’s genius. We think we’ve got it down, got Frank’s motive and emotional space understood, but little do we know, the man is hurting beyond comparison.
Now, let’s return to the image I used to open the piece: the moot attempt to grab a fistful of sand. As Frank attempts to convince himself and us that he has made peace with his past, we realize by the close of “Ivy,” there is no peace. The fantasy of “Ivy” is peace itself. We can relish our past loves, but have we actually let them go? Are we okay with these loves being grains in the wind taken far away from our sight? In the case of “Ivy,” the answer is No. Instead, “Ivy” is full of emotional twists, and subsequent listens showcase Frank as attempting to stave off his discomfort through a series of power moves and fronting. The break-up broke Frank Ocean. So, then, what happens to the dream of love? We have the rest of Blonde to find out.