Many can admit that being a Frank Ocean fan isn’t always smooth sailing — but his languid vocals stretched over ruminating strings or pulsating drum beats are what keep us, inevitably, hanging off of his every last word. After inviting the masses into his introspective world — whether intentionally or not — we all became fish in Frank’s expansive ocean. I myself have struggled to stay afloat amidst a six-year-long stretch without performances, a new album, or really any public appearances from the ever-elusive star. But while we have been longing for even the most mildly satiating crumbs from the melodic artist, Ocean himself has navigated rather rough seas.
Over the past few years, Ocean has dealt with grief and what I imagine to be an immense sense of pressure — pressure to align with the mystical image many fans have created in their own minds and a pressure to fulfill, if not exceed, our expectations of his musical mastery. In 2020, the same year the artist was originally scheduled to headline Coachella, he tragically lost his younger brother and pulled out of the show altogether. It is these innately human struggles that call me back to Earth when experiencing an out-of-body listening occurrence to the tune of Frank’s tantalizing harmonies. The man behind the voice is wildly talented, but he is more than a voice, an instantly recognizable silhouette of a shaved head, or a bright orange album cover — at the end of the day, he is human like you and me.
These are the thoughts that began to ruminate in my mind after departing from Frank’s headlining Coachella performance last weekend. While dancing in the desert for hours on end, I couldn’t help but think of his looming performance at the end of the weekend — a show I, and many other devoted fans, had been anticipating for over a decade. There is a moment I recall fondly: I was listening to Channel Orange well after its release in 2012, while on a road trip. Looking out at the road before me, I thought that I’d probably never get to see my favorite artist belt out his vulnerable lyrics live. After years of dodging tabloids, live shows, and interviews, it seemed like Ocean was content flying under the radar. And I couldn’t really blame him — the modern-age trials and tribulations of fame seem tougher to endure than ever. But there was still an immense wave of sadness that washed over me with that realization; at that point in time, it seemed like the closest I’d ever get to Ocean was through a handheld screen or the spindly chords of my headphones. That is until he was announced as the headliner of Coachella 2023, and before I could even think twice my tickets were booked.
When the day finally arrived, excitement radiated from my body, juxtaposed with a creeping sense of anxiety — what will he perform? Will he seem happy and renewed after his hiatus? Will he actually show up at all? All of these questions seemed fair, as Ocean is permanently marked by his tendency to keep fans on their toes. You never really know his next move, and that’s kind of the fun part, right? Day turned into night in Indio Valley and the masses headed to Coachella’s highlight stage to see the main attraction. A sense of exhilaration clung to the air, paired with an eerie sense of the unknown. The singer-songwriter was set to take the stage at 10:05 PM, and crowds began forming well before noon on the day of. As my group made its way over to the largest stage on the festival grounds, we were met with tangles of exhausted bodies, resting on each other before the performance or linking arms to claim their space. We stopped about twenty rows back from the stage, where we were obligated to set up camp as loyal listeners had already marked their territory hours beforehand. Time kept rolling forward until we had been waiting about an hour past the scheduled start time and collectively, we could barely hold in our eagerness. This all followed the announcement that Youtube had also canceled the live stream broadcast of his performance — which was surely a letdown for those who couldn’t witness the moment in person, but again, only aligns with Frank’s mysterious aura.
Finally, around 11 PM, the massive stage lights flickered low and a larger-than-life screen began displaying rows of what looked like militarized soldiers marching onto the stage. This intro carried on for about ten minutes until the calming sound of Frank’s voice echoed over the valley. An alt-rock version of Ocean’s acclaimed single, “Novacane,” washed over the crowd — it wasn’t the version we all knew, but we rhythmically joined in nonetheless. The massive screen then presented the man of the hour, dressed in a vibrant blue puffer jacket with the hood fastened tight around his face. We couldn’t see Frank ourselves, but rather, we were given an intimate peek into a stage set-up that resembled a bare-bones studio. We could see his band and slight peeks of Frank, but the music took center stage. After singing some of his praised tracks — “Crack Rock,” “Bad Religion,” and “White Ferrari,” to name a few — Frank picked up the mic and began to walk closer to the audience. He still remained a small speck from most vantage points in the audience, but I was instantly relieved to know he was actually there. Addressing the elephant in the room, he started off by expressing, “It’s been so long…but I have missed you.” But as his speech carried on, he made sure to clarify the intention behind his performance. Frank reflected that Coachella used to be a tradition of sorts for him and his late brother; they’d attend, most of the time against Frank’s will, but he did it to please his brother anyway. This was the first time he’d been back to perform since. It became apparent that this appearance wasn’t about a new album, cementing his status as a mainstream artist, or streams. It was a tribute to his brother and the sentimental essence of the moment filled the air so much so that you could almost hear a pin drop.
Over the duration of the performance, we were pacified by the singer’s vocals on live renditions of “Pink + White” and “Godspeed,” while other hits were simply played over a speaker as Ocean bounced around on stage to the beats. Given the late start time, drawn-out pauses between songs, and bubbling suspense, many in the crowd were disappointed not to hear every song live. Others appreciated the exclusivity of the performance as a whole, given it felt more like a sneak peek into a private studio session than a headlining performance. As another unexpected turn of events, there was even a live DJ set by DJ Crystallmess sprinkled into the approximately 90-minute set — leaving bystanders equally puzzled and intrigued. As pulsating beats, some of which incorporated many of Frank’s own songs, poured out of the sound system, the elaborate screen set up displayed a security guard having the time of his life dancing to the upbeat mix. Directing glances away from the stage, I was met with a multitude of expressions. Many were relishing the mere actualization of Frank’s presence while others anxiously checked their phones or whispered to their friends — “What’s going on?” It surely was an unexpected performance, but if Frank’s stamp is bringing forth the unexpected…maybe it wasn’t so unforeseen at all. Although onlookers were hoping for a high-energy close to the weekend, he is known for defying assumptions and at times, granting fans exactly the opposite of what they ask for. If anything, this performance was exemplary of Frank’s uniquely serendipitous spirit.
Later on, Ocean belted out a rendition of the Isley Brothers’ “At Your Best (You Are Love),” before abruptly revealing that he had reached show curfew, and it would all be coming to a close. As the overhead lights illuminated, the crowd remained eerily idle. Was it really over? After accepting the end of the highly-awaited show, crowds began to make their way to the festival gates, concluding the weekend on a rather perplexing note. When Frank did vocalize, we were all warmly embraced by the pureness of his ever-inspiring voice — but it definitely left me, and others, wanting more. Given the low likelihood of even seeing Frank live in one’s lifetime, it surely felt like a historical moment. But I wasn’t too sure the way the performance would be interpreted or remembered given the eccentric and disjointed nature of the entire production.
Now, over a week since last Sunday’s headlining act, it was announced that Ocean had canceled his performance on Sunday, April 23, leaving fans who made preparations to see him once again feeling unfulfilled. Due to an ankle injury, blink-182 was bumped up to a later set time and Fred Again, Four Tet, and Skrillex headlined in his place, making Weekend One’s showing even more of an evasive occurrence. As I still process the event as a whole, I am left clinging to the hope of a new album — which Frank maintained is in the works, but, “Just not right now.” I then return to my thoughts about the reason why Frank showed up in the first place and am reminded that above all else, this was an emotional moment that we got to revel in with him. Whether or not we will ever get to share a moment like this with the artist again remains unanswered, but I guess those who are still on board will have to just keep swimming to find out.