That Frank Ocean started off by writing songs for other artists such as Brandy, John Legend and Justin Bieber shouldn’t be the least bit surprising when you consider his own catalog. There’s an authorial tone to each track that makes you feel as though every word has been carefully scrutinized and selected for inclusion. Consider this line from “Swim Good”: “I’ve got this black suit on, roaming around like I’m ready for a funeral. Five more miles ’til the road runs out.” You don’t need any more words to feel the desperation, to sense the edge-of-the-cliff mindset. All the pertinent details are there.
Other than a sharp, lyrical eye, what Frank Ocean’s first major offering (nostalgia, ULTRA) demonstrated was that voice. A baritone as soft as topsoil that’s capable of propelling skyward with an even softer falsetto. The first moment of “Strawberry Swing” nearly makes you forget the Coldplay tune existed. Ocean with his voice captures all of the wide-eyed nostalgia of youth. It’s his voice alone that makes a stalking “anthem” such as Tyler, The Creator’s “She” palatable. The theater I was in went quiet when his voice cut through Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo livestream. It just rung out and floated in the air, a completely spectral presence.
Perhaps the ghostly imagery is appropriate because up until the releases of Endless and Blonde, Ocean felt like a phantom for awhile. There were the countless delays but also the FYF cancellation and the bowing out of recording “Pure Imagination” to suggest Ocean wasn’t interested in being in public, driven home by the scant amount of interviews Pigeons and Planes pointed to. The only “major” pubic moment from the past few years was the Chris Brown fight, which Ocean never delved into until “Futura Free”: “Jay hit me on the email, said I oughta act my net worth.” Unlike Jay, and especially unlike Kanye, Ocean stays relatively guarded. Listeners have to do a lot of legwork to figure out what Ocean is writing and singing about.
And there’s much to discern in Ocean’s discography. Contained below are considerations of some of his best efforts. They’re songs that are melancholic, meditative, elegiac, euphoric, love-struck and love lorn. They’re some of the best songs the decade’s had to offer.
10. “I Miss You” (2011)
The Beyoncé version appearing on the redefining 4 is one of the Queen’s best tunes bar none. In three minutes, with little more than a ticking metronome and a softly enveloping synth, she conveys the sort of yearning done when you know the person you want so deeply could never fulfill all your desires. But that want doesn’t subside because want, wrapped up in love, isn’t easy to shake.
Ocean’s live versions of the track, which have existed almost as long as the studio version, convey that difficulty even more so. He’s smiling at times sure, but more often his face is contorting as he rings every last drop out of the second chorus: “Misssinnnn you innsaaaane.” The words seem to come out right with this one.
9. “White”- The OF Tape Vol. 2 (2012)
Frank Ocean’s association with Odd Future Wolfgang Kill Them All was confounding from the jump. You’d hear him sing on something as tender as “We All Try” and then ask “This is from the same group that periodically raps about necrophilia and yells ‘FUCK STEVE HARVEY?'” Yep, same group. Ocean’s the big brother letting dudes such as Tyler crash on his couch when they needed to. And if the connection still doesn’t make sense, there’s “White” which showcases Odd Future’s knack for blurring reality and fantasy.
Granted, the dreams of “White” aren’t the murderous nightmares of Bastard, but they are equally fantastical. As Ocean sits down at his keyboard to make sense of things, he sees “Trees talking like people” and imagines gravity “keeping us around.” It’s fleeting, scattered, evocative stuff. Just like the best of dreams.
8. “(At Your Best) You Are Love”- [Aaliyah/Isley Brothers cover] (2015)
Charting Frank Ocean’s exact position in the R&B/soul/pop lineage is a bit tricky, in part because as emotional as his lyrics are they’re also opaque. On a first or second pass through of a song the inflections in his voice are selling his feelings more than the specific phrasings. That’s not the way the old masters operate. You know what’s up the moment Marvin Gaye gets going.
So it is with his Isley Brothers by way of Aaliyah cover of “(At Your Best) You Are Love.” “You’re a positive motivating force within my life” reads as clunky on paper, its sentiment however couldn’t be any clearer. For all of the struggles Ocean has with expressing himself, those words (and that crystalline piano) ring out loud and true. Sometimes one sentence is all you need.
7. “Bad Religion”- channel ORANGE (2012)
Try not to cry. Try not to cry. Try not to cry. Ah hell, with this one there’s no way to avoid it. Unraveling all of your feelings of unrequited love over orchestral strings and church organ is wearying enough. Having the revelation that any “relationship” with a deity is ultimately a one-way transaction? That’s soul-crushing stuff. “I could never make him love me” Ocean hopelessly croons in the song’s climax. No amount of begging, pleading, praying, or even psychoanalyzing with a taxi-driver can do anything to change the math.
6. “Nikes”- Blonde (2016)
So much of what Blonde is try to do as an album is contained within “Nikes.” Pro-black expressions tempered by a daily death toll? Check. Biting critiques of our materially obsessed, social media first society? They’re there. Love making outside of outmoded ideas of “romantic love”? Ditto. And perhaps most importantly, challenges to perceptions of masculinity.
Ocean talks about his balls on this track (“Futura Free” as well) but he also sings with a feminine sounding Auto-Tune that’s akin to Prince’s “Camille” persona on tracks such as “If I Was Your Girlfriend.” Prince’s confounding of gender norms clearly had an impact on Ocean, as did The Purple One’s constant tinkering and forward thinking. You don’t lead off your first album in four years with a five-minute, multi-segment song unless you’re on some future first shit. “Living so the last night feels like the past life” Ocean raps. “Nikes” contains entire lifetimes in it, each as thrilling as the next.
5. “Lost”- channel ORANGE (2012)
Frank Ocean’s most fully realized attempt at a pop-crossover by a damn sight. Which is funny considering the bouncy number concerns a drug supplier who uses his girlfriend as drug mule. It goes wrong because of course. Such stories never end well. But you wouldn’t know it from listening. “Lost” just keeps moving, propelled by low-end bass and chintzy electro flute noises. It masks the underlying darkness as effectively as “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.” You hum along to that hook, blissfully unaware that the “heat of it all” is burning everyone up.
4. “Acura Integurl”- Lonny Breaux Collection (2011)
For all of the paeans to SoCal living, Frank Ocean won’t let you forget he spent many of his formative years in New Orleans. There’s the Hollygrove and 7th Ward shout-out on “Futura Free,” but long before that Ocean was giving a su-woo to Weezy on “Acura Integurl.”
Again with little more than a keyboard to keep him company, Frankie recounts a cross-country trip with a Chris Martin loving girlfriend (he’s more into Three Six Mafia). “You’ll live a better life” Ocean sings in the song’s full version, which sounds like he’s trying to convince himself as much as her. Considering Ocean actually packed up and left NOLA after Katrina, the fear here is all too real. The idea of a fresh start is comforting in theory, terrifying in actuality.
3. “Thinkin’ ‘Bout You”- channel ORANGE (2012)
Special shout out to whatever led Frank Ocean to go ahead and release his original version of this. The idea of only a Bridget Kelly version existing is blasphemous now. “Thinkin’ ‘Bout’ You” was what carried Ocean’s momentum from nostalgia, ULTRA. The swirling, Dream-indebted track was one of Ocean’s first to play with gender roles and possess an undercurrent of bisexual yearning: “Boy I been thinkin’ ’bout you.”
Depending on how you stare at it, “Thinkin’ ‘Bout You” also functions as a splendid kiss-off. “No I don’t like you, I just thought you were cool enough to kick it” Ocean bluntly puts it. Forever’s a mighty long time and the people whom you explore it with are bound to change. Some are in it for the long haul, some are gone in a second. It’s clear which camp Ocean is in.
2. “Novacane”- nostalgia, ULTRA (2011)
That the trippy AF, panda-featuring video for “Novacane” ends up with a forceful slap is all too fitting. Ocean’s first single, a sensually robotic number, causes that sort of blunt force trauma. But it also requires a revival from the emotional numbness that has just set in. More than just Ocean’s face feels “numb numb numb” here, his heart does too. You imagine that after his tryst with this “dentist doing porn in the Valley,” every subsequent relationship is going to be ruined. Sex won’t feel the same. Connections will be as dead as the nerves in his teeth. “Ever since I’ve been tryna to get it back, pick it up and put it back.” In the interim, has anything changed for Frank?
1. “Pyramids”- channel ORANGE (2012)
The hell else could’ve possibly been number one? I mean come on. Really tho what’s the counter to this coming out on top? (Minus some pitiable attempts at street-cred by dismissing an artist’s most well-known work.)
“Pyramids,” the centerpiece of channel ORANGE, manages to shoehorn in cheetahs, constantly rewinding synths, trips to a Cleopatra-led Egypt, venomous deaths, techno breakdowns, pimping, smooth jazz, cigar twisting, warm baths with a prostitute and a John Mayer guitar solo. It does so in a 10-minute timespan without ever feeling overlong or overstuffed. Part of that is owed to how adeptly Ocean threads the needle with his historical narrative about the degradation of black bodies, particularly black women, over several millennia. Pharaohs and empresses have become prostitutes and escorts. Nubian matriarchies have been withered by the desert sands.
It helps too that Ocean knows exactly when to switch the beat up. After the queen meets her doom, the synthesizers blare with a full cry to the fallen. When Ocean, the narrative’s pimp, touches his girl in “Places only I know” everything becomes a gentle burble. (That particular moment is arguably Ocean’s most intimate on wax.) Mayer’s solo only enters after the fallen queen hits the strip one final time. Each stinging note is an expression of the tightly coiled rage she carries with her.
The song stands in stark contrast to one of its competitors for the decade’s best (the hushed electro-pop heaven of “Oblivion” by Grimes“Oblivion” by Grimes) but is totally simpatico with Kanye’s douchebag toasting”Runaway.” Of course that number is solely focused on the self. “Pyramids” has a much wider, much more ambitious, scope. And it’s that ambition that continues to set Ocean apart from his pop music peers.
(Look for such lists to appear each and every Wednesday on the site. And to celebrate, or complain, about the rankings, go below.)