Los Angeles, CA — As evening turned to night on Sat., July 22, a sense of awe set into the crowd at FYF Festival, with some attendees still seemingly in disbelief that Frank Ocean — who had cancelled on the same gig just two years prior, plus a few others earlier this summer — was going to perform at all. Though I had seen him live once before, this neither minimized the mystery nor lessened my excitement as I stood packed against thousands of sweaty strangers, calves and heels splintering from a full day of standing, awaiting Mr. Ocean’s starry-skied summer set. Despite his act’s fabled status and already-visible staging (a long catwalk teased its expansion deep into the crowd), little else was known of what would come from the cultish crooner, who had not perfromed for a North American audience in nearly five years.
Frank Ocean is prone to silence and public exile. In 2012, just as his internet hype began flowering into real breakout stardom via the success of his studio debut, Channel Orange, he paused his career to go soul-searching in Shanghai, telling The New York Times of his plans to write “in remote locations” for about two years. This patient process would later inform his stunning sophomore LP blond with piercingly potent emotion, earning it wide acclaim and confirming Ocean’s status as the hyper-coveted — yet guarded, often distant — songwriter of the current decade. With FYF Festival offering the first chance to see his new material performed in America, the anticipation was nearly fervent.
At 11:00 PM, Ocean walked onstage with the poise of a seasoned pastor, complete with noise-cancelling headphones and a Nike t-shirt — a vintage collaboration made with John Lennon and bearing the phrase: “INSTANT KARMA.” Surely there was some irony in his choice to come out to “Pretty Sweet,” a chaotic collage of strings and sound effects that almost intentionally misaligned with the serenity of the rest of the set. But a purer paradox came just moments later, when Ocean was joined by the roaring masses, right from the very first syllable, in the recitation of his chilling ode to independence, “Solo.”
“Hand me a towel, I’m dirty dancing!”
Ocean sang, standing plainly at the foot of his stage, rocking an almost indifferent calm. The stage featured a set of chairs (built in Tom Sach’s studio), which would later be occupied by an orchestral backing, an inanimate pile of boomboxes and some instruments, together leaving just enough room for Ocean to roam at the lip. In the background, close-ups of his face and artistic portraits of the performance were displayed on stadium-sized screens, looking something like a concert film made live. Together, it all worked to create a feeling of being there, right in the studio with Frank.
“My guy pretty like a girl!”
“Chanel” was next on the setlist, the first of three singles recently released on Frank’s Blonded radio show, and the intensity with which the crowd — even its heterosexual males — screamed out the lyrics is a true testament to their captivation. Afterward, Ocean thanked fans for their participation and promised, “We gon’ get to some other shit in a second.” Not quite yet, though: Before moving on, Ocean would perform “Lens” and “Biking (Solo),” two other newer singles, plus “In Here Somewhere / Comme Des Garcon,” a bouncy track off his slept-on visual album, Endless.
When Ocean did finally arrive at blond though, what proceeded was a truly breathtaking exercise in patience and musical expertise. Kneeling down to play a keyboard from the floor, he performed an extended rendition of “Good Guy” twice because he believed that he messed up the first one, hitting high notes that felt truly spiritual while simultaneously employing the song’s empty spaces, their silences proving contagious. Then, he dove into a similarly extended cut of “Self Control,” rapping over its heart-wrenching guitar riff for nearly a minute (with lines like, “Bounce remixes of Aaliyah had the spinal chord crackin’ / Cups of ‘methazine had ‘em leaning like Michael Jackson”) before finally arriving at the song’s beloved intro (“Poolside convos, about your summer last night”), which naturally invited the crowd to chime in in full force.
The next few songs seamlessly wove classic covers with Ocean’s originals. “Close To You,” Frank’s reimagining of a Stevie Wonder cover, smoothly transitioned into “Never Can Say Goodbye” by the Jackson 5, which then rolled into “Ivy,” a melodious track off blond. Though possibly unintentional, this order offers a subtle push to group Ocean in our minds among the most legendary voices, and surely he had history in mind when, during his performance of the first, he invited none other than Brad Pitt to sit on stage, motionless, animating the set as a piece of performance art. Having announced his appreciation for Ocean in GQ, Pitt was a natural choice for the gig and a sure-fire hit in headlines the following morning.
“Only You,” an over-the-top disco jam by Nigerian artist Steve Monite, was the final cover of the evening. After announcing that his own superbly groovy rendition would be released during the next episode of Blonded radio, Ocean dove into “Thinkin’ Bout You,” the only song performed off his major label debut Channel Orange. I was instantly transplanted back to the summer of 2012, to New York, to long drives listening to Frank and to his performance at Terminal 5. The most definitive trait of his lyrics is perhaps their ability to consistently remind us, not foggily but with urgency, exactly who we experienced them as on first listen.
With the remainder of his set dedicated exclusively to blond, Ocean soared through the uncharacteristically upbeat “Nights,” rolled across the moody “Pink + White” and strolled over the album’s footnote “Futura Free” with the effortless nuance of a performer at home. On stage, a tall disco ball — finally illuminated after a full day of blocking festival-goers’ views — lightened his presence, and though the choir-like responses to lyrics ceased slightly for “Futura,” surprise set-closer “Nikes” received the strongest feedback of all, fans mouthing along until his very last breath.
“You got a roommate, he’ll hear what we’re doing / It’s only awkward, if you’re fucking him too.”
Ocean clapped for just a few seconds, waved, then walked casually off stage, filmed on screen the entire time like a fighter who had just proven himself victorious.