Review: How Frank Ocean — and Brad Pitt — made FYF Fest feel one of a kind

Frank Ocean performs Saturday night during FYF Fest in Exposition Park.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
Pop Music Critic

Frank Ocean sat in a chair onstage at FYF Fest, a pair of large, studio-style headphones clamped over his ears.

The enigmatic R&B star was singing — first his song “Close to You,” which he said he’d based on Stevie Wonder’s cover of the old Carpenters hit, then a bit of the Jackson 5’s “Never Can Say Goodbye” — while behind him Brad Pitt appeared in high-definition close-up on an enormous video screen. Pitt had a cellphone to his ear; his expression was sincere but inscrutable in the way movie stars are paid millions to perfect.

Yet this wasn’t some forgotten film clip Ocean had dug up to establish a vibe for his headlining set Saturday night.


Pitt was there in the flesh, leaning against the lip of the stage as a cameraman fed carefully composed images to the screen. The actor stayed put, working those world-famous eyes until the end of Ocean’s song. Then he took off without a word of acknowledgment from himself or the singer.

Beautiful and sad and audacious, it was a one-of-a-kind piece of performance art devised by a musician uninterested in the ordinary.

But Ocean’s celebrity stunt wasn’t the only unique moment at FYF Fest, which took place Friday to Sunday at Exposition Park with acts including Missy Elliott, Björk, Erykah Badu and A Tribe Called Quest.

In an age of American music-festival saturation — when the lineup of one pricey event can look discouragingly like those of countless others — FYF was seeking to offer experiences that couldn’t easily be had elsewhere.

Scarcity over abundance seemed to be the credo, whether it was Elliott doing her first full gig in the U.S. in years or A Tribe Called Quest playing what the hip-hop group said would be its last concert in Los Angeles. Late Sunday, Nine Inch Nails was scheduled to perform as part of its return to the road after a brief hiatus.


Still, there was no doubt that Ocean was the big draw. Single-day passes for Saturday sold out well before Friday’s or Sunday’s, and fans lined up hours before his show to buy limited-edition T-shirts from a pop-up merchandise tent.

The singer — who rocketed to stardom with his Grammy-winning 2012 debut, “Channel Orange” — was booked to headline FYF two years ago but canceled at the last minute. In August 2016, he finally released his long-awaited follow-up album, “Blonde,” but then went on to back out of a number of other festivals, which led to widespread chatter over whether he’d actually make it Saturday.

Make it he did, though, and with an inventive set-up that lent credence to the “production delays” he’d blamed for the earlier cancellations.

Positioned with several backing musicians on a small platform connected by a runway to the main stage, Ocean managed to preserve the startling intimacy of “Blonde,” which almost entirely rejects the flashy theatrics of modern R&B. It’s an album of quiet (if dramatic) realizations about love and art, and here the singer struck a confessional tone that brought the massive festival crowd to an eerie hush.

Ocean, who’s well known as a sonic perfectionist, kept those headphones on throughout the show. And the guy with the camera wasn’t just there for the sequence with Pitt; he circled the players all night, in full view of the audience. (The cameraman appeared to be director Spike Jonze, though Ocean’s representative didn’t respond to a request for confirmation.)

Yet somehow this technical spectacle, which also included surround-sound speakers, made the performance feel only more private and human, as though you were getting right inside Ocean’s mind.

Headlining Friday night’s bill, Elliott was far less precise in her presentation.

Detail defines the groundbreaking hip-hop and R&B records — including “Work It” and “Get Ur Freak On” — she made in the late 1990s and early 2000s with her creative partner, Timbaland; together they helped reimagine those genres as digital playgrounds.

But at FYF, where Elliott was performing after a long stretch of downtime thanks to a battle with Graves’ disease, the rapper and singer kept running into sound trouble; the show was pretty scrappy, with lots of false starts and hype-man filler.

Like Ocean, though, Elliott was putting across such a strong sense of self — in this case, rapping along to her irresistible hits with clear joy about being back — that you hardly minded the interruptions. At one point, she mentioned that her shoe had come untied — charming, obviously.

And later, she took several long minutes to tally up the various pop stars who’d come to Exposition Park to witness her return, among them Beyoncé, Janet Jackson and Katy Perry.

If anyone else at FYF had done that — if anyone else in the world had done that — it would’ve been insufferable. Elliott, on the other hand, made you feel how special the moment was for her.

Ditto the members of Cap’n Jazz, the short-lived but influential ’90s emo band that reunited for a fierce and poignant performance Saturday evening. And A Tribe Called Quest, which went beyond its allotted stage time to pay proper tribute to the late Phife Dawg.

The rapper’s death last year has given Tribe no choice but to call it a day, the group’s Q-Tip said with a heavy mixture of dignity and regret. So he and his surviving bandmates are making the rounds, offering fans — and themselves — a final opportunity to experience Tribe’s sly uplift.

Not every act was so singularly motivated. Thundercat, the adventurous L.A. jazz-funk bassist, seemed worn out, minus his usual effervescence; for him, this appeared to be just another gig in a busy festival season.

Survive oozed a similar indifference, perhaps because FYF represented not an opportunity but a distraction. A few weeks ago, two members of this electronic instrumental group scored a left-field Emmy nomination for their title theme from the Netflix series “Stranger Things,” and here you kind of got the impression that they’d rather have been at work in the studio.

But those were exceptions in a weekend that felt unusually touched by inspiration.

Partway through Ocean’s knockout performance, the singer ran through his song “Good Guy,” then decided it hadn’t worked for him. “I wasn’t really stoked on that,” he said, before reminding his audience — which hardly needed it — that Saturday’s concert was only his “fourth or fifth show in so many years.”

So Ocean played the song again. And, sure, he was taking advantage of an ultra-devoted fan base to indulge his own pride.

But he also knew the show mattered. He wanted to get it right.

Twitter: @mikaelwood


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