"All You Want Is Nikes, But the Real Ones"
Frank Ocean's live performance captures the honest intimacy of his work. It's just up to the crowd to decide if they want to experience it as intended.
Illustration by Kayla Graves
I haven't thought of a good introduction to this semi-regular column yet, but it will be about music: some good, and some shit. Thank you for being here. Peace and love, peace and love.
In an episode of the Netflix show Abstract: The Art of Design, noted British artist Es Devlin describes the thought process behind her work. "What are you going to make the audience feel? How can something pretend, initiate or generate anything true?" she asks of herself, as her set designs for Kanye West, Beyonce, U2, and the Pet Shop Boys play in a slow yet rich montage.
As one of the world's most eminent stage designers, Devlin is a master in communicating emotion through architecture. The isolated, grand cubes she designed for West and JAY-Z's Watch the Throne tour conveyed a sense of pompous solitude—something that has come to define part of the tone of their later careers—while 2016's Formation Tour opened with a literal aperture of light, presenting Beyonce as a celestial, near-religious figure. Production details like these help to add to each artist's story—reinforcing what we know to be true, heightening what we already feel.
Though Devlin hasn't worked with Frank Ocean, the two share the same reverence for being meticulous; for placing importance on minutiae as much as the grandiose, understanding how the two come together to form a whole. That's why Devlin excels in her field. It's also why Frank Ocean has been described as one of this generation's premier songwriters. Nothing is left to chance, everything has meaning. "The question of 'why?,'" Devlin says, "endures throughout."
Devlin is speaking specifically about her production work but that question is also rooted in Ocean's recent run of festival dates—and for different reasons. First: as a response to a string of cancelled dates, in which production delays were blamed. Second: as a response to the live show, where the set list consists of mellow, kicked-back material almost entirely from last year's Blonde and Endless releases. And lastly (as though it's somehow less important, in some cases even forgotten): why is Frank Ocean creating art in this way, what's the meaning behind it, and how is he doing it?
The muted response to Ocean's appearance at last weekend's Lovebox Festival in east London's Victoria Park has, in some ways, neglected to answer those final questions. It's been called introverted, without asking why. What should one have expected? For him to release a flock of white doves into the air and glide away, Peter Pan like, to the strings of "Thinking About You"? This would have been exciting (and likely impossible), but showbiz, celebratory bombast isn't what his albums Blonde or Endless are about. These are intimate records, the shared emotions and experiences of one man.
Despite their rooting in private experience however, Blonde and Endless evoke universal feeling. They're self-portraits of Ocean, but opened up into a window through which we can view ourselves, often giving color to something we can't explain or remember yet feel with vivid intensity. As such, they're best experienced alone: in transit, in the still hours of the morning to have followed the haze of the night before—and, most importantly, through headphones rather than large speakers. All of which creates a dichotomy: how can such an intimate experience be translated to a large festival crowd? And it's the "why" behind Ocean's set design that provides the clearest answer.
Rather than performing on the festival's main stage, Ocean created a podium in the center of the crowd in front of that stage where he sat, headphones on, as though in his own world—retreading the experience of the album in real-time. Speakers faced inward, meaning those in the circle around him were encased in sound. It was a one-of-a-kind performance: private yet public, shared but solitary, introverted in the way Ocean's albums are, as a route to exploring some deeper feeling inside ourselves. All of which meant those outside the circle likely felt excluded and unable to be part of Ocean's vision.
The radio silence between the release of Channel Orange and Blonde; the wealth of material (which, alongside Endless, included a magazine and several more releases in "Biking", "Chanel," and "Lens" ) and the lack of promo from Ocean—these suggest music to him isn't a form of celebrity. Instead it is art: not based on money or a desire to be mysterious, but of pride and presentation—of taking time to create the right product. Ocean even says as much in a 2013 interview with Oyster mag, where he eulogizes the Japanese way of life—one also of pride and presentation—and how it has influenced his creative direction.
Despite having an understanding of the inconvenience caused, the cancellation of Ocean's shows earlier this year should have come across as nothing less than a desire to stick with his ideals—to make sure everything was in place, that it could come across in the right way, that there would be no room for error and he could be proud of what was being presented. Instead, some saw the move as selfish, unfair and annoying. Some suggested Ocean had stage fright or simply couldn't be bothered to turn up, putting "production issues" in exaggerated air quotes coupled with a verbal eye-roll—all of which presents a deep misunderstanding of the artist he is, for whom minute details become mountains.
It is this same misunderstanding that presents the biggest challenge of Ocean's career. Celebrated and idealized as an R&B icon, it is expected for him to put on a show that, in archetypal terms, fits that description. As an artist however, he's going to do things on his own terms—which is exactly what happened at Lovebox. In a paradoxical way, the stage design of last Friday, the loose atmosphere of Blonde, the honouring of art, even if it takes time—these are what make Ocean the lionized artist he is. Couldn't hear him at Lovebox? Move to the front or leave. Ocean built his vision, bringing the intimacy of his work to life. The onus is on us to experience it as intended—or not at all.