Frank Ocean and the Wisdom of Nostalgia
This is something I wrote back in September 2016 but never shared. I’ve been listening to a lot of Frank Ocean’s music recently. I’m tweaking this and putting it out now because it’s all still true.
There aren’t many writers in the world I’d take over Frank Ocean. As someone who cares a lot about writing, the power of Ocean’s pen consistently blows me away. He has a way of doing everything in a manner that’s breathtaking while also seeming effortless. Many people are great at what they do, but only a select few make their craft seem legendary without breaking a sweat.
Frank’s writing prowess extends beyond the studio. In his now-infamous letter shared just before the release of 2012’s Channel Orange, he eloquently explained his inner torment: “In the last year or three I’ve screamed at my creator, screamed at clouds in the sky, for some explanation. Mercy maybe. For peace of mind to rain like manna somehow.” He told the story of his first love before concluding by saying that he’s finally found some of that peace he was looking for. “I’ve never had more respect for life and living than I have right now,” he said. “I feel like a free man. If I listen closely… I can hear the sky falling too.”
I feel like Frank Ocean is the type of artist that will always be tortured, to some extent. All the greats seem to be. Channel Orange was born out of a time of great tribulation and was part of the healing process that helped put a bow on his formative years. He’s different now. More than four years passed between the release of Channel Orange and Blonde. He returns again with a letter. This one’s in his Boys Don’t Cry magazine. He describes his life in the 1,502 days since we last properly heard from him. He moved to England. He bought a $176,000 Porsche. He recorded in Tokyo, NYC, Miami, LA, London and Paris. He came out with an album.
The result is Blonde. While his two albums are similar, his debut felt somewhat finite and focused — largely about a specific summer. This album transcends, seeping out of the present and into multiple sections of the past while exploring all matters of time and space and the special kind of wisdom that can be gained from reflecting on tribulations.
In the Bible, James writes to his fellow Christians facing persecution:
“Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing.”
That passage has always made me roll my eyes a little bit. When I’m really beaten down, the last thing I want to hear from God is “Stick your chin out, kid! This is good for you!” The sentiment echoes across religions. The simple concept of “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” stretches back thousands of years and it’s easy to forget it’s a universal truth. Blonde shows the idea still has value in 2016.
“Boys do cry,” says Frank, referencing the original title for this album in his newest letter. “But I don’t think I shed a tear for a good chunk of my teenage years. It’s surprisingly my favorite part of life so far. Surprising, to me, because the current phase is what I was asking the cosmos for when I was a kid.” Then he drops the thesis of Blonde, making sure to bring in another of his car analogies. “Maybe that part had its rough stretches too, but in my rear-view mirror it’s getting small enough to convince myself it was all good. And really though… It’s still all good.”
There’s a certain amount of joy and pride in looking back upon our rough patches. In hindsight, the jagged edges appear softer and the lessons learned feel clearer. I think it’s healthy to occasionally have a sober-minded examination of our worst periods because time tends to have a way of helping things make sense. There’s wisdom to be gained in reflecting.
Blonde is packed with these memories. Some are laser-sharp (a BMW X6, an Acura Legend) and some are more esoteric, like a vague feeling (“You see me like a UFO”). All are barbed with some deeper meaning or lesson. Frank’s taking us to these places for a reason.
Blonde gives Ocean an excuse to flex his command of this wisdom, as he bounds through his past, retrieving poignant observations. On “Ivy” he thinks back on a time in his life where his emotional walls were so high that it actually made him more vulnerable. On “Pink + White” he paints a picture of children cannonballing off the roofs of homes into hurricane-flooded streets before realizing Katrina’s destruction of his childhood home allowed his mother to teach him “tools just to stay alive.”
These moments flutter back and forth between hazy recollections and vivid memories, but it’s in the intensely sad moments that Frank shines. In the words of Pitchfork, “longing looks good on him.” It’s true. Frank is damn good at this. “White Ferrari” is an easy highlight. “I let you out at Central,” Frank croons. “I didn’t care to state the plain. Kept my mouth closed. We’re both so familiar.”
So yes, maybe the struggles are ultimately for our benefit, but I think a lot of that benefit can only come in hindsight. Ocean’s catalogue is practically an exploration of this theory. It’s hard to believe Blonde was written at 28 years old. Frank is a writer that’s mastered his skills, but it’s his ability to see himself and his past that’s truly enthralling.