I’ve been reading a lot of literary criticism while penning the nostalgia, FOREVER series. I like to read in the quiet of the morning before the emails start rolling in, and the fog of the day settles over my head.
I’m reading John Carey’s A Little History of Poetry, taking my time on the John Keats section. Keats was a “London boy from a poor background,” as Carey writes, one whose work was lambasted by critics for its sentiment and his socio-economic status. This morning, I found myself stuck on one of Keats’ letters, where he writes:
“I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the heart’s affections and the truth of imagination. What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth, whether it existed before or not.”
Within the aesthetics of a piece, we find its soul. For me, the effect of a poem is the beating heart of the thing.
I took these words with me to my desk, underlining them and musing on them, as I pulled up the lyrics—once again, I’ve been at this for a while—to Frank Ocean’s “Pretty Sweet.”
Produced by Malay, Om’Mas Keith, and Frank Ocean, the Blonde conundrum is equal parts caustic and compelling. There is swirling chaos to “Pretty Sweet,” as if we are within the tornado of “Thinkin Bout You.” Four years ago, Genius user Ghostcamp_62 wrote, “I cannot make sense of this song, and that’s a beautiful thing.” That comment has 219 upvotes and counting.
I’ve been meaning to write about “Pretty Sweet” for weeks, but found myself in the same camp as Mr. Ghost—I couldn’t make sense of “Pretty Sweet” and thought it was my failing.
After reading Keats’ letters, I realized I was approaching “Pretty Sweet” from the wrong angle. Instead of flanking it from the side of logic and analysis, I needed to pounce from the depth of my imagination. “Pretty Sweet” exists as a teasing out of “the heart’s affections,” exists as a dense poem tucked into a lush album.
“Imagination takes [Keats] beyond the bodily senses,” writes Carey. I needed to do the same, needed to leave my body, and step into the pit of “Pretty Sweet.” Sometimes, as listeners and writers, we forget to experience the music and rush to understand. But there can be no complete thought without gut. And my gut tells me “Pretty Sweet” is a beautiful mess of a poem.
“Now, to the edge I’ll race / To the end I’ll make it / All the risk, I’ll take it / Head bang with my faux friends / We pour a taste out for the dead / This is the blood, the body, the life right now” –Frank Ocean, “Pretty Sweet”
“Pretty Sweet” begins by painting Frank Ocean as a fraught risk-taker. He is surrounded by the fake, by death, and by a fledgling life. Frank may as well be at the center of a distraught universe. He stands in the heart of a mess. The sonics accentuate as much.
The setting of “Pretty Sweet” shifts thusly, with Frank making plans to hit the ends of the earth, but stuck with “faux friends” pouring one out for the homies. His desires come second to his obligations as a man of the people. Perhaps, at this moment, we think of Frank the recluse, how he would rather exist in the shadows than thrive amid a beautiful disaster.
Yet, he cannot step away. He’s not “racing”; his every move on “Pretty Sweet” is a mere thought. He exists in the realm of imagination. He is Keats. He is all feeling, and it is freeing him of his tangible present.
“The height right now / Might be what I need / Might be what I need / Said you wanna hurt me now / You can’t hurt me now / That might be what you need” –Frank Ocean, “Pretty Sweet”
We get as much from the back-half of the introduction, where Frank alludes to the escapism of a high as his most present need. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Blonde track without a vexing heartbreak, which births the lines about some nameless stranger needing to hurt Frank Ocean. This, too, reminds me of Keats’ letters.
“The heart’s affections” implies the heart has ill intentions, too. The “You” of “Pretty Sweet” is Frank Ocean’s foil. Where Frank is attempting to peer into his imagination and listen to his heart to save himself, the “You” is looking for vindication. As such, “Pretty Sweet” showcases the beauty of mess by showing us all sides of a damaged coin.
These contrasting ideas bring us to the juxtaposing lines of the first verse: “What it means to be alive on this side / (Said you wanna kill me now).” Frank is pining for life while the “You” is seeking to break down Frank Ocean, for good. But Frank is bigger than ego-death (“Fuck the other side”). The following lines about “Mothers” exemplify this battle against ego-death, invoking images of birth and the struggle for living a fulfilled life.
In that way, “Pretty Sweet” is a necessary precursor to the closing moments of Blonde, where Frank does battle with the life he wants versus the life he sees as prescribed to all good people.
Then, suddenly, our perspective shifts once more on the outro. “We know you’re sugar / We know you’re sweet like a sucka / Pretty sweet, pretty sweet,” a choir of voices sings to close “Pretty Sweet.” It’s a venomous three bars, without a clue of who the “We” is.
Surely, Frank is not referring to himself and his “faux friends.” Perhaps Frank is tagging in the listener, who, by this point in Blonde, understands Frank Ocean so very well. Everything hinges on “sweet like a sucka,” how Frank turns the tables on the “You” who wishes to kill him with his vindictive edge. That’s the beauty of mess, too, how it spares no one.
This “sucka” moment, more than any other on “Pretty Sweet,” makes me feel heard. How tiring it is to always be the bigger person; how exhausting to always be productive and healthy with your choices. There is a universal fantasy of letting it all go and being a self-destructive, maladaptive fiend.
And then, “Pretty Sweet” just ends. The mess evaporates into the ether. We get a brief taste of Frank Ocean’s abandon, and then it’s gone. We’re on to the next. There is a stillness, and the next voice we hear is unfamiliar—a skit. “Pretty Sweet” lacks resolve and mimics the lack of closure life offers. It feels like a fever dream.
“Because Keats’s imagination has created it, with its emptiness and its silence, it does—for us as a reader—exist,” writes Carey of Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”
“Pretty Sweet” is Frank Ocean’s “Ode,” his bid at existence in forms we are not yet comfortable with. The song is its own ode to the beauty of mess, sure, but more than that, it is a reminder that Frank Ocean remains fallible.
We all are attracted to mess, to catastrophe. We all slow down on the highway to peer at the car accident on the shoulder. It’s inevitable. It exists, our hunger for the worst. Our imagination is not a pure place, but that’s okay. We’re only human.