Live: Frank Ocean at the El Rey
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“What would the world be without a love song?” wondered Frank Ocean rhetorically at the El Rey on Tuesday night during his Los Angeles concert debut. The 24-year-old R&B singer knew perfectly well the answer: He wouldn’t have been standing up there, red and white bandanna neatly folded into a band and wrapped around his head, black suit, white shirt, the ladies cooing and the men shifting uncomfortably beside them, without love songs.
Standing alone with a video screen behind him projecting random scenes of cowboys, drifting clouds and atomic explosions, while a backing track pumped out bass-heavy musical beds upon which Ocean laid his smart, beguiling tales of longing and lust, of American love, of Coachella love (“I went to see Jigga, she went to see Z-Trip, perfect”), the young man with an uneven but undeniable baritone made the standard sexy maneuvers over the course of the night. He took his jacket off during “Swim Good” when it started getting too hot, and the ladies screamed. He kneeled and sang to the front row, and they cooed. He did a little groove thing with his butt, which his admirers enjoyed as well.
Ocean relocated to Los Angeles from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, signed to Def Jam records, for whom he recorded the excellent “Nostalgia, Ultra.” In 2009, while the album languished unreleased somewhere on a Sony hard drive, the singer hooked up with the L.A. musical collective Odd Future, then broke ranks with Def Jam and released the album as a free download in early 2011.
He’s since become a very busy man (and Def Jam finally released a sanctioned version): Two of his magnetic vocal hooks bookend Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “Watch the Throne” collaboration; his work with fellow Odd Future member Tyler, the Creator on “She” brought him underground attention — and a huge energy boost when Tyler showed up to perform it with him on Tuesday night; Ocean’s “Novacane” was a surprise hit; and his slow-burn song of longing, “I Miss You,” was a standout track on Beyoncé's recent “4.”
The attention proved warranted at the El Rey, though the songs themselves shone brighter than his performances of them. Kicking off with a cover of Sade’s “By Your Side” as if to provide a reference point for the evening to come, Ocean offered lyrics worthy of quoting verbatim, which he wove among quiet but memorable beats that suggested not only the sleepy modern sounds of Drake, The-Dream, and Tricky Stewart (some of whom he’s worked with) but also a long line of intensely quiet rhythm and blues ideas from Shuggie Otis, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Keith Sweat and Luther Vandross.
Ocean’s strength is in his ability to craft narratives. “Nostalgia, Ultra” teems with engaging stories that he presents over borrowed beats and samples as varied as Coldplay and the Eagles. Ocean rips the former’s “Strawberry Swing” and transforms it into a beautiful, bittersweet song about the end of the world: “When we were kids we hand-painted strawberries on a swing,” Ocean sang, using Chris Martin’s original lyrics as a springboard into a different realm altogether. A new song, “Super Rich Kids,” was a smart indictment of the 1-percenters, and should be some sort of working-class anthem.
But Ocean is obviously new to this game. His interaction with the crowd was occasionally awkward. His departure near the end, meant to be a farewell before the requisite encore, confused his fans and resulted in a muffled, half-hearted call for return. Even more challenging was his decision to stand alone onstage for the duration of the night; because he was singing to backing tracks rather than with a band, he at times looked lost up there. And since he’s not a magnetic dancer, the show dragged on longer than it could have. (The ladies, however, didn’t seem to mind.)
Near the night’s conclusion, Ocean swiped whole-hog the Eagles’ “Hotel California” and turned it into “American Wedding,” using the meditative melody as an entrance into a long yarn about a young marriage and bitter divorce: “M-R-S dot Kennedy, she signed her name in pen/In a fancy fancy cursive, then turned her term papers in/A thesis on Islamic virgin brides and arranged marriage/Hijabs and polygamist husbands, those poor unAmerican girls.”
By the end of the song, he had turned the story into a metaphor on the decline of American influence. “It’s just an American wedding/They don’t mean too much, they don’t last enough,” he sang before concluding that the love is doomed: “You’ll probably leave later anyway/It’s love made in the U.S.A.”
Luckily, America keeps producing fantastic songwriters. Even if our weddings are doomed, at least Frank Ocean will be there documenting their rise and fall.
-- Randall Roberts