Frank Ocean’s career has been defined by the tension between distance and intimacy. In the years after his breakthrough album Channel Orange he all but disappeared from public life, emerging to flex on albums by Jay Z, Beyoncé, and Kanye West, or to goof around on songs with his old friends in Odd Future, heard but not seen. In a time where where many young celebrities are, in the words of Taylor Swift, “like, this close to overexposure,” Ocean eschewed Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat to become the only major star communicating with his fans through Tumblr. He would pop up every once in a while to tease his sophomore album, which only made his fans even thirstier, even though the supposedly interminable four-year wait was rather normal.
Of course, with Frank putting so little of himself out into the world, any transmission, however flickering, was worth savoring. Those Tumblr posts, sent sporadically on a mostly abandoned social network, carried a unique privacy, even as they were dutifully consumed by the news cycle. When Ocean did return, it was in this same unpredictable and almost bewildering fashion. The ethereal “visual album” Endless felt, well, not like an album at all. But it gave way to Blonde, by far the most personal music he’s ever released, and Boys Don’t Cry, a multi-hundred-page glossy zine that laid out Ocean’s multimedia influences, hinted at his travels, and revealed, at least superficially, his browser history. Since Blonde’s release, Ocean has released new songs via an Apple radio show, which otherwise features little to none of his input and arrives seemingly at random, often while everyone in America is asleep.
Perhaps it should be of no surprise then that the live show he has debuted at festivals this summer tugs at this same knot where intimacy and distance become entangled. As anyone who has craned their neck for a look at his long-awaited return to live performances has seen, Ocean’s show places him on a small circular stage a hundred or so feet out into the audience, a long walk away from the hulking behemoths that are summer festival main stages. He stays there for most of his set, joined for part of it by a small band that sit hunched over on a few benches seemingly meant to evoke a public park. Revolving around Ocean like planets in a solar system is an array of cameras and operators, recently including Spike Jonze, whose visuals are projected live behind Ocean on the equally large video screens that flank those behemoth stages.
So here is Frank Ocean, out in the masses, as physically close to his fans as he’s likely ever been. For the people in the festival crowd who can barely see him let alone touch him, he is providing a unique and up-close set of visuals, often high-def video, shot by the best people on the best equipment, right in his face, from 360 degrees. And yet, if you were a casual fan and not a fanatic, you might wonder if Ocean is still trying to fuck with you. The opening of his show pulls heavily from Endless and those post-album singles released on a radio show only accessible to people who subscribe to Apple Music, and even when he gets into Blonde, he is a singer closing a festival to a stadium’s worth of people with songs that are as sparse and quiet as a subway busker’s on a sleepy night. He only performs one song from Channel Orange (“Thinkin Bout You”) and makes no reference whatsoever to “Slide,” his summer hit with Calvin Harris that has been in regular rotation on pop radio, becoming the highest charting single Ocean has ever appeared on. The set is at once personable and antisocial.
But if you are a fan, the show may be one of the best you see for a long time. Ocean’s music across all of his albums is soft and inward-facing—the drums, if they ever even appear, seem to shuffle along as if they’re walking somewhere in no hurry. Hearing his songs rendered loud enough to reach someone a half-mile back provides a new perspective. “Lens,” a delicate post-Blonde ballad, is muscular in this setting, its sporadic drums feeling like punches. The whispered interlude “Good Guy,” which Ocean plays on a keyboard in a crouch at the lip of the stage, is drawn out, slow and heavy. When Ocean plays “Self-Control”—the strummed centerpiece of Blonde in which he howls about a relationship he is still grabbing at—you feel the bass quaking underneath this otherwise simple song like an earthquake’s rumble, emphasizing its vulnerability. The moments of catharsis—the wistful and anthemic coda of “Self-Control,” the beat-drop on “Nights”—are the ones you expect, but they feel very, very real.
Ocean himself is funny and approachable on stage, his banter genuinely awkward. At one point, he asks the crowd if they’ve ever been in love, but he prefaces it by noting that in doing so he’s kind of rehearsing the skit at the end of Lauryn Hill’s “Lost Ones,” in which a teacher asks a bunch of kids about their perceptions of love. And so he quickly abandons the prompt, not like someone who isn’t interested in his audience, but like one who didn’t do his homework and is too embarrassed to keep up the charade. Despite ascending to a level of celebrity that allows him to disappear except for events like the Met Gala and a state dinner, it still feels like Ocean is coming out of his shell. He was bashful, flubbing at least three songs and apologizing each time.
Reasonable people could easily quibble with the set list, or even the manner of performance, singular but still meditative, open but also closed off. Nonetheless, Frank Ocean’s new live show is a perfect encapsulation of the artist himself, both piercing and impenetrable. There is, at this very moment, nothing else like it, but it, too, may be set to disappear in characteristic fashion. Ocean plays in Sweden and Finland this month, but after that his schedule is empty, perhaps indefinitely, a spell to be broken at some point in the future, probably, maybe.