Let me preface this by saying I adore Frank Ocean. His storytelling, songwriting, and mesmerizing, heartwrenching vocal performances have made me a diehard fan since 2012. He’s a once in a generation talent and I can’t think of a more compelling, supremely talented musician. There’s a reason people waited patiently for 4 years between his two studio albums. Where other artists would have been long forgotten, Frank got more popular. He’s that good.
He’s also the absolute worst headliner I can imagine for Coachella. You probably haven’t seen Frank Ocean perform because he shows up when and where he wants to which isn’t very often. Since dropping Blonde he’s only had a handful of shows and they’re always in obscure places like Zurich or Dusseldorf. He’s a quirky, unpredictable, elusive man, which is part of his allure.
He’s mysterious and infamous, somebody that fans have been clamoring to see more of since Channel ORANGE. He has all of the makings of a festival headliner, so what’s the issue?
He’s Doesn’t Cater to the Crowd
Look at his last performance from 2017.
Ocean meanders around the stage uninterested in the crowd and the world around him, I mean he has headphones on for fucks sake. He’s got some turn-up songs (“Pyramids”, “Monks”) that would make the crowd explode but he doesn’t care. Most artists would create a loud, energetic set that caters to the audience. Frank seems like he’s fucking with them.
He shares a small, circular stage with a handful of musicians that looks like a studio session. Behemoth screens project close-ups of his face throughout the show. If any other artist attempted this they would be deservedly mocked. The crowd doesn’t boo because they have a tolerance for Ocean’s weirdness. It’s a self-indulgent performance that his diehard fans love and his casual fans hate.
It’s also ballsy. Headlining a show means you get the crowd at a fever pitch. They’re peaking on drugs, they’re dehydrated and exhausted from standing in the sun all day, and they are ready to rage. Ocean performing at the end of the day is the equivalent of me doing a mountain of cocaine and then going to an art museum. I’m not in the right headspace to appreciate what it has to offer.
Ocean treats the stadium like a small jazz club with 20 people in attendance. That’s essentially the point, he’s trying to bring you into his creative process like he did when we watched him build the staircase to nowhere in “Endless”. He starts and stops his performance at will and at one point projects Brad Pitt’s face on the big screen during a rendition of “Self Control”. None of it really makes sense, except to Ocean.
He purposefully sings altered versions of his songs, using different inflections in his voice and slightly altered melodies and timing so the crowd can’t sing along.
This is all amazing to watch. I’ve seen these performances on YouTube countless times. I have the utmost respect for an artist who does the exact opposite of what everybody thinks he’s going to do. Keep the people guessing, give them something unique, don’t just roll out the same setlist and copy/paste performance every night. He’s altering things on the fly and doing exactly what he wants to do as his band tries to follow along.
I would pay a lot of money to watch him perform that same set but it’s not a good look for Coachella. The festival is predicated on pandering to the crowd. It’s mostly casual music fans that want to enjoy the hits. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. They came to sing along to the songs they know and Ocean will not indulge them. His performance demands patience, something that Coachella attendees will not have at the end of a 3-day binge.
Coachella is not his Crowd
Fans at the Camp Flog Gnaw festival booed Drake off stage last month. Yes, that Drake, the highest-selling artist of the 2010s and one of the most beloved pop stars of all time. Why? They thought he was delaying a surprise Frank Ocean performance.
Drake’s live show is one of the best in the business and if you watch the video he was clearly giving it his all. He even dug up deep album cuts like “Feel No Ways” which he rarely performs live. He was bending over backward trying to please the crowd and they were still dissatisfied because it wasn’t what they expected.
It was the end of a long festival day and the people wanted what they came for. They expected to see Frank. They felt entitled to see Frank. If there was one place he would pop up for a surprise live performance it was FLOG GNAW and he was a no-show yet again.
Frank isn’t a surprise guest at Coachella. His MoMa loving artsy-fartsy crowd of teenage outcasts in dark horn-rimmed glasses will be there to support him. But the majority of the crowd will be the “popular kids”. The people that came to the show for the clout and feel entitled to nothing less than an Earth-shattering EDM fuckfest.
Most of the crowd expects the energy of a Drake performance, they’re not there to see an abstract, improvisational arthouse installation. And I fear that Ocean may experience the same confounding anger that Drake did. When fans expectations’ aren’t met, things tend to get boo-ey.
He’s also competing with co-headliners Travis Scott and Rage Against the Machine, arguably two of the most intense, loud, crowd destroying acts to ever hit the stage. They headline the first two days, leaving Ocean to deal with the crowd’s expectations of a third mosh-pit inducing rage fest.
Frank Ocean performs for his fans, not for the casual listeners. And the majority of the crowd will be casual listeners.
Please Don’t Boo Frank Ocean
From what I’ve seen following the release of Blonde, Frank’s show demands patience. He’s going to do what he wants. If you want to witness it, cool, but he’s not going to change his art for anybody, even if it means the crowd hates him. He has the courage to bare his soul and welcomes the consequences. He’s not here to turn the crowd into a mosh pit a la Travis Scott, he’s here to try and change your perspective. Touch your soul. And cater to the people that really enjoy his music.
He wants you to have the patience to come on a journey with him and experience something unique together. He wants to challenge your expectations and force you to look into the mirror. To feel something other than brief euphoria and confront your own feelings of heartbreak, loss, pain, and regret. He wants you to shed tears, hug strangers, cry a little. He wants the music burrow its way into your heart as well as your ears.
Maybe I’m a cynical asshole and not giving the Coachella attendees enough credit. They may have the patience to appreciate Ocean’s most-likely-weird performance. And the man hasn’t performed in over two years so who knows what his live show looks like now? He’s been previewing some new music on BLONDED Radio shows such as “In My Room” and “DHL”. He’s also been releasing snippets of some dance hall/futuristic reggae tracks at his PrEP+ events like “Little Demon” so it’s entirely possible he has some unreleased BANGERS locked and loaded.
There are also other artists performing at the same time so concert-goers have options if they get bored. But I don’t think the fans are prepared for what Ocean is going to do. None of us are. It’s definitely going to be weird and test the patience of casual listeners. We’ll have to wait and see how they react.