In The Before, a few months back, I was in the car with my girlfriend, driving through South Jersey to my buddy’s house. During the 15-minute drive, I decided to play some choice selects from Blonde, so I put on “Self Control” and immediately grabbed the wheel tighter. Something about boyfriends and wet dreams, and Frank Ocean’s immaculate pen, hit the heart from the jump. Then, as Austin Feinstein sang, “Keep a place for me, for me / I’ll sleep between y’all, it’s nothing,” tears welled up in my eyes.
I paused the music, repeated the lines slowly back to my girlfriend at a red light that seemed to go on forever. She looked at me, admittedly not knowing what to say, and we let the weight muscle between us in the car. I repeated the lines again, the light turned green, and we made it to my buddy’s.
She never did say what she thought of the lyrics, but I can tell you there’s nothing worse than knowing what it means to want someone to hold space for you between them and their newest lover. Because you’re their old lover. Because it just could not work out. What a pity.
“Self Control,” produced by Malay, Jon Brion, and Frank Ocean, is all about timing and the losses which come by way of unfortunate timing in love. Frank makes as much clear from the opening lines about poolside conversations. His pitched vocal wavers as if he is nervous asking to make it one last time with an old lover, the subject of all of “Self Control.”
As we witness Frank catching up with a man from his past life, we ease into the narrative. Then, Frank takes us back in time with the first proper verse: “I’ll be the boyfriend in your wet dreams tonight / Noses on a rail, little virgin wears the white / You cut your hair but you used to live a blonded life / Wish I was there, wish we’d grown up on the same advice / And our time was right.”
Beneath their first cocaine lines, we see Frank flitting between past and present. We see him notice the way his former lover has changed now that they’ve stepped out of each other’s orbits. Wishing he was there for the haircut—one of the first signs of change when a relationship goes south—and hoping he could level with this ex to summon the idea of Frank as remorseful.
He is pining after his past on this first verse, those early nights where things were exciting and dangerous as all new relationships feel like a high, a risk, and a chance to reach a new pinnacle.
The first line (“I’ll be the boyfriend in your wet dreams tonight”) works in two contexts as well. Firstly, it takes us to Frank’s meeting this man, how he was slick in his approach. It feels, taken in a present context, as if Frank is making a bid to relive old memories.
Everything boils down to the final line of the first verse, where Frank lambasts timing with a timid delivery. “Self Control” thrives off implication. How we infer Frank is no one’s boyfriend, how he cannot shake their first memories of doing coke together, how coke stands in for the rush of new love, how the timing could not have been worse.
It all coalesces to suggest the lover of “Self Control” slipped away before he could ever settle fully in Frank’s heart.
The end of this relationship does not feel like a monument crumbling before our eyes in some spectacular show of destruction. Instead, the fallen romance of “Self Control” mimics the feeling of watching the inevitable tide wash away a sandcastle built too close to the shoreline. Bound to happen and tragic nonetheless.
As the waves crash in, we get to the heartbreaking hook I mentioned earlier. We get to a written plea to be remembered. To ask for someone to hold space for you is equivalent to saying, “Please, don’t let me leave your thoughts.”
Paying special attention to “It’s no thing, it’s nothing,” we get the sense Frank is comfortable being a passing thought in his ex’s mind, just as long as he is a thought at some point. We get the sense Frank is comfortable being kept on the sidelines, as long as he is kept at all.
There’s a desperation here, the same desperation marking all of Blonde. Of course, we can imagine Frank playing it cool and trying to brush off his pleas as “no thing,” but the weight of the image is just so heavy, it’s hard to imagine Frank taking back his sentiment.
By the second verse, Frank has begun speaking for—not exactly his former lover—an enigmatic you. Based on the allusions to “Solo” in the second verse (“Now and then you miss it, sounds make you cry / Some nights you dance with tears in your eyes”), we can assume Frank is talking directly to the listener, having dissociated from the poolside scene altogether.
Going back to “Solo,” the second line of the second verse is a clear call to the lines “Hand me a towel, I’m dirty dancing / By myself,” which open “Solo.” At once, we get a recontextualization of “Solo” as pure misery, an interweaving of narratives across Blonde, and a perspective shift in Frank’s songwriting.
With him speaking to us, the import of “Self Control” doubles. We go from insular to universal. And—this is the real rub—we start to remember things we’d rather forget.
I’ve got a buddy—a different buddy; the one I always write about—who says there are two types of people. He says some dance to remember and some dance to forget. On “Self Control,” both genres of folx come together to cry about their past.
As usual, Frank lets his songwriting unfold and strike the way an unpleasant memory has the potential to seize us. We don’t expect “Self Control” to turn on us, but Frank is an otherworldly songwriter.
“I came to visit, ‘cause you see me like a UFO / That’s like never, ‘cause I made you use your self control / And you made me lose my self control, my self control.” –Frank Ocean
Finally, after another shift in perspective, we arrive at the “self control” motif. We’re treated to more backstory here, as Frank reveals the pair grew apart for lack of time together. Timing, always the trouble of “Self Control.”
Frank also reveals their growing apart was circumstantial since his lover had to exercise restraint to keep himself away from Frank. This insight raises a few questions, such as: Was Frank toxic? Was Frank too much? Was Frank’s partner merely scared of commitment?
While there’s no clear answer on the song, we can infer based on Frank admitting to losing his self-control on the following lines. That is, we can gather their relationship was something of a firecracker—too much passion too quickly, and then nothing, kaput.
We run through a chorus and a warbling, distorted bridge, and things feel familiar, and the story of “Self Control” feels evident. We can start to remove ourselves from the narrative, thinking we’ll walk away from this one unscathed. Yet, like most of Blonde, Frank comes with an outro so gutting, it could stand as its own song.
Singing—damn near chanting—“I, I, I know you gotta leave, leave, leave/ Take down some summertime / Give us, just tonight, night, night” to spark the outro, Frank takes the poolside scene from innocuous catch-up with a twinge of sorrow to full-blown despair.
A bit about me: I seem to always get dumped in August because the timing just wasn’t right for us. So, when Frank sings about a lover leaving to “Take down some summertime,” begging for only one more night, I can’t shake the feeling he’s writing about my life. Of course, that means this outro makes me cry—what doesn’t?
These lines, pulling back for a second, are what makes Frank such a force. His fine detailing and how he manages to make the incredibly specific broad enough for someone like myself to fall into his world and experience it as my own is inspiring.
Then, finally, finally, Frank reveals the reason the relationship fell through. The timing was all wrong, and then someone new came ‘round, and Frank’s partner had little choice but to pursue the better choice: “I, I, I know you got someone comin’ / You’re spittin’ game, know you got it.”
There’s something so heartbreaking about the closing note of encouragement as Frank says, “Know you got it,” as if to suggest he knows his former lover is irresistible. There are no worries; they’ll be fine. It feels like the moment of clarity after bad news breaks when you come to terms with the tragedy and realize everything will eventually fall into place.
If you pair the outro with the hook, you get the real depth of “Self Control,” how badly Frank wants to be remembered, considered, and loved, despite the impossible timing and the impossibility of the romance.
By this point in Blonde, “Self Control” is the saddest and most desperate moment of the album, because the more you sit with the song, the more you realize Frank Ocean is bleeding all over wax. He’s trying to be coy and flit around the hurt, but there’s no two ways around it—this situation fucking sucks.
For a long time, “Self Control” was my favorite song on Blonde, simply because of the hooks and outro, simply because Frank spoke to a personal travesty with a universal scope. That’s his magic.
When we left my buddy’s house, I played the rest of “Self Control” for my girlfriend. Night had fallen. The scene was crisp and perfect. I sang along to the remaining hook, bridge, and the somber outro. She watched me with heavy eyes.
I thought about all the people who had left before her, and how horrible it might be if she had to go “Take down some summertime” herself. Except it was the fall-turning-winter, and we had made it through the summer together. Things finally matched up. The time was right. I was on the other side of “Self Control,” living a blonded life.