2:14 pm Jul. 27, 2012
Frank Ocean's not too big on genres.
In interviews, the 24-year-old singer has resisted the idea of representing the soul and R&B tradition, speaking of the complexity in his music, its broad embrace of sounds from hip-hop, dance music, and rock. He's categorized his crooning, emotional songs on iTunes as "death metal" and "bluegrass." It is something his fans appreciate.
"The beauty of his music [is that] it can deal with gray areas," said Tra Criss, 22, one of the many who had come to see Ocean perform his sold-out show last night at Terminal 5.
Yet whatever his efforts to stymie his own categorization, Ocean writes music that at the very least owes a great debt to R&B, as his opening song last night, a Sade cover, attested. For Ocean the traditions of soul and R&B function more as a starting point or a pivot from which to push off into new territory, both musically and thematically. D'Angelo achieved something like what Ocean is shooting for in 1995 with Brown Sugar. But where D brought a familiar, even retro type of clever cool and down-to-earth instrumentation to a genre that had become overblown, Ocean gives us introspective confusion amid a melange of electronic pulses, bursts of lush instrumentation, rock samples, and sparse, skeletal sonics. The characters Ocean portrays and narrates on his debut full-length, the recently released channel ORANGE, are pausing and looking at their lives, not completely sure of what they're seeing. And the mix of sounds makes us somewhat unsure of what we're hearing as well.
Ocean does all this within a decidedly pop context, of course. His songs flirt with experimental elements, but are not attempting to overcomplicate their status as pop tunes. Likewise he isn't afraid to show a lighter side. That Sade opener—an acoustic "By Your Side"; he knocked it out of the park, and it placed the whole evening in a very particular mood. Sade has always occupied a kind of semi-marginal position in music: R&B to be sure, but calmer, cooler, more cosmopolitan, more ephemeral. It was a sign that Ocean wouldn't be restrained by anyone's expectations of an R&B singer. His songs, even ones built to compliment each other—like "Sweet Life" and "Super Rich Kids" (flip sides of being born into the lethargy of wealth)—came out of order, and often strayed from the album's arrangements. But when Ocean performed his two biggest hits early on, "Thinkin Bout You," the soundtrack to bedroom crushes nationwide, and last year's "Novocane," it became clear that Ocean only wanted his shows programmed in the loosest sense, pop-idol status be damned. With both his songwriting for others and his own material, Ocean's forte has always been removing masks, and for his show decided to bring a personal touch then ORANGE's electronic sounds could allow on their own.
A track-for-track recreation of ORANGE would perhaps have been much appreciated; Ocean's live reputation is too new to attract audiences simply to see him perform. But Ocean clearly relishes live performance, and the opportunities it presents for innovation, reinvention, improvisation. And it was possible that last night's show was particularly special for him, with his brothers-in-arms Tyler, the Creator and Earl Sweatshirt of the Odd Future collective, of which he's a member, jumping up and down with every vocal lift, highly visible in the V.I.P. section on the upper left balcony (they were in town for their own show). Regardless, he and his three-piece band (a standard outfit of drums, keyboard, guitar, and bass) brought out sounds that evoked nearly every facet of R&B from a touch of a Frankie Beverly's quiet storm, slow and mellow on "Sweet Life" to hints of the larger pop-radio world Ocean occupies with his hook on Jay-Z and Kanye West's "Made in America."
Wearing what's become his signature American-flag headband, Ocean kept to the national theme with "American Wedding," stripped to its bare minimum (perhaps as a result of legal pressure over the album version's sampling of "Hotel California"), a painful tale of an elopement, full of minute detail and confusion over what it means to be American: "this tattoo on my left hand is turning purplish-blue, daydreams of romance, daydreams of you"; the bride-to-be turning in her thesis, "on Islamic virgin brides and arranged marriage, hijabs and polygamist husbands." As the riffs of an electric guitar played out, Ocean sang, "this is the home of the brave, land of the free, but your parents still don't know."
In a now-famous Tumblr post made last month, Ocean detailed a same-sex relationship he had when he was 19, and how he was still feeling its effects.
"Some people made a big deal of it, some people didn't. I had to do my thing," Ocean said last night to raucous applause before launching into ORANGE's "Bad Religion," which he said was specifically based on the incident. Like with "Wedding", on "Religion" Ocean expands on the smallest of moments — "Taxi driver, be my shrink for an hour, leave the meter running, it's rush hour" — and expands it into a story of learning the cabbie is religious, and not even being able to pour his heart out to a willing stranger.
The night ended with two fan favorites, the epic "Pyramids" and the simple "Miss You." "Pyramids" is quickly getting attention as Ocean's magnum opus to date, a ten-minute, Prince-like epic that spans millennia to tell the story of Cleopatra the pharaoh and a stripper named Cleopatra forced into prostitution, all told over an overwhelming cacophony of electronics. On the album and live, the song felt unique, hard to pin down to any one influence or style. It's a crowd pleaser that deals front and center with issues of economic insecurity, the first real dance number the recession has given us. On the album and live, the song felt unique, hard to pin down to any one influence or style. It's danceable, but also sad.
Ocean finished as he'd begun, with a cover for an encore. This one was of Beyonce's hit "I Miss You," a song that Ocean co-wrote. Again the cover was played simply, just Ocean's voice and a piano. channel ORANGE is bookended in the same way, with gentler love songs to open and close, and the complexity and pain in the middle. "I Miss You" is about trying to figure out why feelings linger for an ex: "I miss you/ But if I got with you, could it feel the same?" It's songs like that that show why Frank Ocean will be an R&B singer: love isn't easy for him, but he'll be damned if can't stop chasing it.