The Psychedelic Connection Between Kacey Musgraves and Frank Ocean
On 'Golden Hour' and 'Blonde,' their masterpieces, the two artists find new colors and new worlds, a step to the side of our reality.
There's a rumor out there that Frank Ocean and director Tyrone Lebon were both tripping on acid when they shot the video for "Nikes" in 2016. It adds up. There are those shots of Ocean sitting on the dirt, surrounded by his cars, a styrofoam cup in his right hand, eyes closed as the screen splits and he says he's "got two versions." The way he stares at the camera as he pulls that balaclava over his face, ready to stagger forwards, on fire. The angle of his arms around his torso when his voice finally settles at the end of the song and he's covered in glitter on stage and he tells us that he's "Living so the last night feels like a past life." The way the video cuts away when he sings, "Acid on me like the rain / Weed crumbles in the glitter," then chops the lines down to their basic functions: "Rain / Glitter."
On Blonde, Ocean was one step to the left of reality with his eyes wide open and pupils dilated, and nobody in pop music had really joined him there until Kacey Musgraves released Golden Hour last week. Blonde and Golden Hour are quietly hallucinatory records, swept away from mundanity by flood after flood of serotonin. The two singer-songwriters come from radically different places—musically, spiritually, geographically, culturally, name it—but life has thrown them both into similar spots. On their third full-length projects, grappling with the onset of their late-20s and awkward adulthood, both searching for beauty behind ugliness, they've tried to see the world for what it isn't, immediately.
You didn't need to read Musgraves's Twitter missives about drugs to figure out that she's been working with new chemicals. As I wrote the other week, many of Golden Hour's lyrics seem to have been typed out on a cell phone in the middle of a trip. "Bursting with empathy / I'm feeling everything," she sings on the minute-and-a-half-long "Mother," speaking both to her mother and husband. "Hope my tears don't freak you out / They're just kind of coming out / It's the music in me / And all of the colors." In the week since the record was released, the little things have started to come through more clearly. "Slow Burn," the opener, is laconic and awe-struck in equal measure, at ease with the world and desperate to consume it all at once, a mellow stream of acoustics beneath Musgraves's insistence that we "look at all the flowers." There's a two-bar interlude towards the end of the song in which the chords change up momentarily and Musgraves sounds like she's yearning for something, possessed: "Whatever feels good."
That laid-back hedonism is what drives Musgraves's new worldview. She was a thousand miles away from all this on her debut, Same Trailer, Different Park. She "woke up on the wrong side of rock bottom," detailed the inevitability of repetition in her hometown of Golden, Texas, and got her heart broken a couple times, finishing up in a likely loveless relationship. The exception there was "Follow Your Arrow," a joyful do-what-you-want singalong about those times when "the straight and narrow gets a little too straight." But, even then, she seemed to be looking from out from the inside of boredom. One suggestion, she sang, was to "roll up a joint"—a stopgap. The album deservedly turned her into a star and pulled her out of Golden, but her follow-up, Pageant Material, had the singer trapped inside her head, even as her world got bigger. The closest thing to hedonism there was "Die Fun," which would have seemed like an Instagrammable live-fast sort of motto if it didn't put such emphasis on the dying part. If you find yourself thinking that it was, actually, a light-hearted track, skip forward again to the closing one-two of "Fine" and "Are You Sure," in which Musgraves admitted to lying about her depression and then sung against her claustrophobia. She may have escaped the confines of her small town, but she'd never seemed so stuck.
Ocean's depressive tendencies strangled the majority of his first two projects, Nostalgia, Ultra and Channel Orange. Re-read his eloquent letter on falling in love with another man (in which he screamed at God for an explanation) and re-listen to "Bad Religion" (in which he fell into anguish and learned from a taxi driver that prayer "couldn't hurt"). It's all there, murky and twisted-up between split-seconds of fleeting glory. Ocean was figuring out his place in the world, and he forced that agony into his songs.
It's part of what made Blonde so immediately engrossing. Ocean obviously hadn't found any sort of lasting happiness as a 28-year-old, but he was actively searching for it, and sometimes new shapes and colors got him closer. There were moments, as there are on Golden Hour, when the LSD took over almost completely. "Solo," in which he's "gone off tabs of that acid," brings on image of "Hell on earth," a burning city, but "heaven" nonetheless if you breathe it in. Dreams—the mind outside of itself—are everywhere, from the instant that he hears "I love you" on "Ivy" through the wet dream on "Self-Control" into the dreams of thoughts and thoughts of dreams that run into each other on "Siegfried." He explained that otherworldliness himself in an essay that came out a couple hours after Blonde. It was weird and wonderful, partially a story about his first experience on mushrooms, the way he saw a car's center console breathing, the experience of the "imperial palm trees and climbing vines living their lives out just off the [hard] shoulder," the psychedelia of everything. But, as he did with the rain-glitter on "Nikes," he boiled it down to something simpler: "The feeling familiar enhanced."
That's where Musgraves and Ocean meet—enhancing the familiar, insisting that the new reality they're seeing when high is the real reality, utterly overwhelming though it is. "Siegfried" segues into psychedelia again: "Eat some shrooms, maybe have a good cry about you / See some colors, light hang glide off the moon." Musgraves is in love now and no longer heartbroken, really, but she sees the same thing everywhere—a "kiss full of color," the "Golden Hour" when the sky changes hue.
Members of (and superstars to) a generation of people bogged down by low-level despair and pixelated anxiety, Musgraves and Ocean both use psychedelic drugs as an escape, something that can alter them for the better, something that can strip back some layers. And—whatever era—stumbling into adulthood, figuring out where you belong and what the hell you're doing, is painful. They're looking for a new route through. "These songs are injected with a hopeful outlook on this time + space we have on this beautiful planet, despite it feeling tumultuous," Musgraves wrote two days before Golden Hour's release. "No is run of the mill. Yes is a gem," Ocean wrote at at i-D.
Their acid-catalyzed rushes lead them to different conclusions. But listening to them over and over again, "Futura Free" and "Rainbow"—which close out Blonde and Golden Hour respectively—seem to be in an uncanny conversation with one another. They're both four-chord piano ballads, though Ocean's is warped and skittishly stream-of-consciousness while Musgraves's is startlingly beautiful and concise. Ocean, like Musgraves, talks to his mother: "Play these songs, it's therapy momma / They paying me momma / I should be paying them." But he intentionally loses focus as things stumble forward. He lashes out a little. It all unspools like a comedown.
Musgraves just stays staring at the colors: "Yellow red and orange and green, and at least a million others." It's neater, more comforting, but no more or less true than Ocean's late turn towards chaos. Not all of the new colors are beautiful, but Kacey Musgraves and Frank Ocean, on their masterpieces, both realize that it's worth looking for long enough to find out.
Alex Robert Ross wants to look at all the flowers. Follow him on Twitter.