Just hours before Frank Ocean was due to take the stage at the Wiltern in Los Angeles, the artist, whose given name is actually Christopher Breaux, got into a car accident. It was July 17, before what was then the most high-profile concert of the 14-city Channel Orange tour, amid a surreal week that had, among other things, seen his album, Channel Orange, leap to No. 1 on iTunes within hours of its release. “But a few songs into the show,” wrote the Los Angeles Times pop music critic Randall Roberts wrote, “right in the middle of ‘Forrest Gump,’ the most revealing and emotional work on Channel Orange, Ocean cut the song short, made a brief apology that took into account the crash, and started anew to sing about his first love, a man he nicknamed Forrest.”
For all of his poise and maturity amid the high-speed ascension to fame, a fender bender functioned as a reminder that Frank Ocean is indeed human.
He hadn’t been giving any hints on stage.
Sunday night's concert in Atlanta and Monday night’s show at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C., marked the halfway point in the Channel Orange tour. The performance is spare but electric, and Ocean is the unlikely star: reserved, engrossed and thankful. Adoring crowds have filled halls in Seattle and San Francisco, Dallas and Austin and although he’s just a few solo shows into his career, he’s as crowd pleasing an artist as there is on the planet.
If Ocean’s Los Angeles show was partially marked and even altered by his moment of vulnerability—the L.A. Times' Roberts suggested that he never recovered. Seattle’s workmanlike performance was solely about the music (reviewers and concert goers remarked that he barely mentioned he was in Seattle). Ocean’s show-opening cover, Prince’s 1980 hit “When You Were Mine,” is both demure and grand. Even when he’s trying to hold back, he soars.
His cerebral air and focus on the music gives this tour a level of gravitas you won’t feel at, say, an Odd Future show. For someone always deflecting praise, always shyly smiling downward away from his admirers, Ocean was either brash or energized enough to attempt a stage dive at San Francisco’s Regency Ballroom on July 16. Apparently, the crowd wasn’t quite ready for him.“That was a bad idea,” he said afterwards. But it’s in that impulsive action, in his curiosity about the world, in his measured but anxious lyrics about love, he reminds us all that he’s still just 24.
The tour’s musical director is the producer Malay, who co-wrote and co-produced Channel Orange. Sonically, the music itself is lean and muscular which Ocean complements with his buttery falsetto, soulful shrieks and spare, melodic phrases that define his unconventional style (there are, predictably, no background singers).
“The epic, episodic “Pyramids” was an almost a proggy finale—both explosive and nuanced complete with fuzzy bass, wide-angle synth chord and a guitar solo that felt down right over-the-top for a night of such restrained playing,” wrote Music Source’s Joe Gross. “Then an encore of Ocean solo, at the keyboard, playing Beyonce’s “I Miss You,” (a song he co-wrote) owning the room as completely as when he stepped on stage, a quiet end to a stunning night from a young man you are unlikely to see again in a venue that small this time next year.”
If Gross’ evaluation is unique, it’s because it embodies Malay’s musical sensibilities and Ocean’s character and persona. It’s been said in musical circles that Ocean can’t sing, or rather that he is not a great singer (in the Black musical tradition, if you cannot perform Vandrossian vocal theatrics, you are not great). This is not only completely and utterly wrong, but it misses a rather salient point about the appeal of his live show: You actually can sing along. And boy, do his crowds sing along.
"I've always wanted to make a career in the arts, and I think that my only hope at doing that is to make it more about the work," Ocean told the Guardian earlier this month in an interview in which he admits to caring a good deal about his image and fame. “I enjoy singing my songs in front of people. I enjoy being involved in making the artwork for albums and stupid stuff like that. I wouldn't be a part of [it] if I was just writing songs for others. And I said more about the music.”
Regardless, it seems with Ocean, the music comes first. Wondering if that remains the case throughout the course of his career—or if he will begin to sing rock music or move to New York or London or Tokyo—is secondary to the genius taking place on stage, right now, for a limited time. Why would we think so far ahead?