Imagine with me, for a moment, the morning after a bar fight. You wake up, ruddy and hungover, and your adrenaline is still pumping. For some reason, somehow, you feel great. Alive, even. You bound about your room, around the corner, into the kitchen. You fix yourself a coffee, maybe breakfast, and you ease into your bones.
Then, slowly, things begin to creak and ache. You feel sticky patches on your face. You look down at last night’s shirt—it’s stained red with blood. Your blood, probably. But we should’ve seen the other guy! You rush to the bathroom, get a good look at your mug in the mirror: disgusting, contorted, swollen in places. The pain surges then. You remember every blow, but not what the fight was about. Suddenly, your morning’s gone from energized to horrific. For some reason, you can’t help but laugh at yourself.
This is the story of Frank Ocean’s “Solo”—kind of. The sleeper hit of Blonde, an album that feels like it blessed us and fell from the sky, “Solo” sounds energized, chipper, and upbeat. And yet, it is brimming with Frank’s pain. He finds himself through heartbreak, sure, “In hell, there’s heaven,” sure, but the longer we sit with “Solo,” the more we realize just how deeply Frank is hurting.
As we ease into “Solo,” and ease into Frank, showing us heartbreak defines who we are, we see the creases of ourselves more clearly. There is no perfection on “Solo.” The James Blake-assisted production, the glimmers, they veil a particular type of ache: the pain of the morning after. The pain of stepping into the consciousness of reality.
Take the opening four bars of “Solo,” (“Hand me a towel, I’m dirty dancing by myself / Gone off tabs of that acid / Form me a circle, watch my Jagger / Might lose my jacket and hit a solo, one time”), and how the scene feels so lively and yet so, so sad. We’re alone, breaking a sweat, and dropping acid. And singing. By ourselves. Hearing these four bars, I like to imagine Frank Ocean on the brink of collapse, trying desperately to entertain himself before the memories flood back of the love lost. And they do flood back. As in the next four bars, where the police shut down the function, and Frank confronts his lover: “Forgot to tell you, gotta tell you how much I vibe with you / And we don’t gotta be solo.”
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These eight lines, taken together, paint a pretty miserable picture beneath one of Blonde’s most spirited vocal performances. One moment, we’re deluded and dancing about the place, the next, we’re grounded with the reality of what was and what couldn’t be. This dance between the dour present and wistful past is one Frank does well. Shifting between scenes, Frank creates through his memories in the form of memories themselves. He writes the way memories strike. There’s a delay to his hurt. We have to get through 20 bars before Frank admits to there being a hell at all.
“It’s hell on Earth and the city’s on fire / Inhale, in hell there’s heaven,” goes the first hook of “Solo.” If we return briefly to my opening bar fight image, this hook is the moment you look in the mirror and begin to laugh. You see yourself, and you thrill yourself with who you have become in the face of pain. You have become the face of pain. And yet, there is hope. Within Frank’s fresh hell, he finds his heaven. That’s the key to “Solo,” the thing that makes it hurt so much more. We realize Frank is forcing himself to see the good in his present bad because if he doesn’t make meaning out of his strife, it will just be heavy pain settling into his core. With meaning behind it, he can invite lightness into his life.
With that, there’s a certain lightness to the opening of the second verse: “I’m skipping showers and switching socks, sleeping good and long / Bones feeling dense as fuck, wish a n***a would cross.” These are just the minor tendencies of a depressed man: long sleep, poor hygiene, body revolting—the works. Frank’s lilting delivery lifts any heaviness; there’s almost humor to his emotional state. Remember the mirror; remember laughter? It’s so important to laugh when you’re down. Too, laughter can be a sign of unwellness. In older literature, the one who laughs the most is often the maddest. Here, we see Frank reach another breaking point. We’ve gone from dancing by ourselves, to the din of a deep depression.
What follows in the second verse is another series of memories culminating in one night in Colorado, where Frank is, once again, alone. “I wanted that act right in Colorado that night / I brought trees to blow through, but it’s just me and no you / Stayed up ‘til my phone died, smoking big, rolling solo,” Frank sings. From these three lines, we can make a series of educated guesses. The pair were in Colorado together, but they ended up alone. It was Frank’s fault; he knows this. He stays up until his phone dies, never ringing, as in, his partner never reaches out to patch things up. Instead, Frank gets stupid high and thinks about what could have been. It’s the first verse all over again, how the queer experience is often this series of missed connections and miscommunications.
We reach the second and final hook, then the outro. Frank is alone. So bitterly alone. Against his best efforts, too. So, let’s return to the morning after the bar fight. You’ve just finished looking at yourself in the mirror, laughing at yourself. You are feeling a little deranged. What is there left for you to do? You could clean yourself up, but what’s the point? No one’s here to see you. Already, you cannot stand the sight of yourself. What good will a clean face do, then? You slink back; settle. The pain becomes more tolerable.
“Solo” is the song for the morning after the bar fight. “Solo” is the song for the morning after your heart breaks. “Solo” is the song you play when you want to run from pain, but only until your legs tire. “Solo” is the song you play, really, when you want to surrender. Think of Frank disappearing into the floral sounding organ. Where can you disappear to? Where can any of us go?