Live: Frank Ocean Returns To The Bowery Ballroom For The First Time


Frank Ocean
Bowery Ballroom
Sunday, November 27

Better than: Canceling an hour before showtime.

This March, Frank Ocean released the free mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra on Tumblr, and it was subsequently passed around like a sex tape, picking up steam with every like, every reblog, every retweet, every “MUST LISTEN”-branded blog post. Immediately, Def Jam put out the Bat-Signal, a nationwide search for Annie, trying in vain to get this kid on the phone, desperate to give him a deal. An unnamed executive called someone in Los Angeles, who revealed that Frank Ocean was already signed to Def Jam, under the name Lonny Breaux. He’d been collecting dust on the label’s shelf for a year and a half; frustrated, he put the music he’d made out himself. Def Jam had no idea that they already owned him.

Ocean, performing at the Bowery Ballroom last night before an audience of open-armed fans and industry elites, seemed uncomfortable with the idea of being wanted, like he wished he could take back his first two wishes. He canceled his last date here, a month ago, announcing on a couple of social networks that come down with a sore throat; last night’s performance inspired conspiracy theories of stage fright. For much of the show he stood completely still, only moving to pull at his jacket openings and trace his pants pockets, unsure where to place his hands if not in a jar offstage. There was no net beneath him, just a guy with a laptop sitting to the side of the stage. He seemed like a wallflower pushed into the middle of the circle and forced to dance. To distract the eye and help tell the story that his body couldn’t, there were visuals behind him: during “Pleasure,” a plodding march that has yet to be released, mash-ups of babies gestating and seizure-inducing clips of Dragonball Z silhouetted his frame. He seemed ill at ease, like this whole thing wasn’t his idea.

And yet, he’s considered a messiah, the savior of R&B music in its darkest ages, dragging it out of the murky puddle of generic hooks and forgettable alcohol anthems that’s accumulated over the past few years. With Nostalgia, Ultra (and the handful of guest verses he’s produced since), Ocean has brought a sort of relevance to the genre, a hipness usually associated with indie-indie rock or underground rap. He doesn’t shy from references to abortion or Van Halen; his new material points in the direction of old Prince. Every song performed last night was greeted by cheers; his words were received with revered silence. Def Jam, meanwhile, seems not quite sure what to do with him. (A friend said after the show, “His new stuff is even weirder than his old stuff!”)

It made for a good show, nearly perfect in its imperfections. “Dust,” over a pounding echo of bass-drums and snare kicks, was hypnotizing, his voice sounding so much stronger than the record leads one to believe. Every so often, he added a little English, allowing himself the opportunity to step outside the ProTools session and add flourishes; he always nailed it. At one point he strapped up for Guitar Hero and played (well, pretended to play) the entire solo from “Hotel California”/”American Wedding”—all three hours of it—with his back to the audience, the toy guitar clicking and clacking throughout. (Someone shouted, “1000 points!”) At the end of “Pleasure,” he walked off without saying goodbye, returning a minute later with a teacup and saucer. He sipped, gingerly. Was he being funny? Was he being weird? Or did he just need it for his voice? What was happening, and why?

He finished with the one-two punch of “Novacane” and “Strawberry Swing,” a strong elixir, and then thanked everyone for coming. He exited. Goodbye, Frank. The lights stayed down. One minute passed, then four. The crowd chanted, clamoring for an encore, applauding when two techs came out to inch a piano into place. (A friend said, “This is the worst call for an encore, ever.”) The piano had been there the entire time; everything had already been set up. He knew we wanted him back.

Critical bias: I have definitely sent caps-locked emails containing Frank Ocean rarities.

Overheard: “No one’s tickets are real! Make sure your tickets are real!”—a kid charging out the exit with his girlfriend, his fake tickets in hand.

Random notebook dump: Maybe he wouldn’t be so special if he mugged for the camera, if he shared with his OFWGKTA friends the same desperate need for attention. One wonders, though, how do they hang around each other? What could they possibly find in common? How could this gentle soul get dragged into a WorldStar/Twitter feud with Chris Brown?

Set list:
By Your Side (Sade cover)
Thinking About You
Swim Good
Songs for Women
Acura Integurl
No Church in the Wild
Made in America
Super Rich Kids
We All Try
American Wedding
Strawberry Swing

Miss You (Beyoncé cover)