At their very best, contemporary artists produce work that requires us to question relationships, with both ourselves and others. In the same vein, the live music concert venue asks us to consider another relationship: the one between the performer and its audience.
Having not performed in America for three years before returning last Sunday at FYF Fest in Los Angeles (followed by a performance at New York’s Panorama Festival on Friday), Frank Ocean appeared an unlikely candidate to deliver that question. Yet, watching his performance to close the WayHome Music & Arts Festival, the artist who has been so contemplative with the distribution of his work is at ease by allowing the audience into his environment, but on his own terms.
After going radio silent for almost four years after the release of Channel Orange, Ocean released a slew of critically acclaimed projects last year, starting with the video album Endless, followed a day later by his official second studio album Blonde and the accompanying Boys Don’t Cry magazine. Fans were rewarded for their patience, but seeing Ocean perform live has been an even more elusive experience.
On Sunday at WayHome, Ocean—in a black-and-white striped top and noise-cancelling headphones—opened with “Solo,” which set the tone for the rest of the show. During “Solo,” Ocean stopped his vocals before his final verse, bringing it all the way back to the beginning for a second take. This would become a recurring trend throughout the show, whether it was during “Close To You,” when he did a second take after he deemed his vocals “not clear enough,” or on “Forrest Gump,” during which Ocean admitted that everything is in progress at the moment.
Performing on the main stage, which was altered to include a runway ramp that led to the middle of the crowd, Ocean was backed by a set of videographers who have been filming his every move on his return to tour so far.
The footage plays out during his set, on three giant screens on stage, ranging from close-up shots of Ocean to interactions with the crowd, giving the feel of a documentary playing out in real time. “It’s just us really,” Ocean said during the show, although it was unclear whether he was reassuring himself or the audience.
It’s easy to see Ocean’s new strategy of negotiating the performer-audience relationship. The show is set without expectations, with the “Solo” trip-out creating an environment where the performer is allowed to be imperfect in the search for perfection.
The setlist too is at times disengaging, with early setlists choices—the trio of “Chanel,” “Lens,” and “Biking,” which appeared on the Blonded Radio show on Beats 1 earlier this year—dedicated to, as Ocean described, “the radio heads.” The choice to shrink the audience has an immediate effect of removing any expectations.
From the way he maneuvered his way off Def Jam with the release of Endless, to the manner in which he has maintained his privacy and created music at his own pace, Ocean has always taken the approach of giving to the extent that he wants, and letting the audience receive what he allows.
But the entire experience isn’t one-sided, in fact, the audience becomes equal to the performer, and the relationship is one of shared interests. By the time the fans start to sing along to “Ivy” and “Thinkin’ Bout You,” even Ocean gives himself a moment to blow kisses to the fans, admitting that he’s still getting the hang of being around people while he performed.
You would have a difficult time believing him, with his smooth cover of Steve Monite’s “Only You,” and heart-pouring performance of “Nights” followed by “Pink + White.” But the best moments came towards the end. “Pyramids,” a performance backed by the most creative use of lighting and smoke of the evening, and the final song “Nikes,” with the lyrics project on the giant screen behind Ocean for the audience to completely engage (and sing along) with.
Ocean is this generation’s hesitant genius. But the shy demeanour vanishes in the time it takes for him to capture an entire concert crowd. What starts as a disengaging experience ends on the opposite end. Ocean has found a unique approach to engaging the concert audience: to be genuine with no limitations. Ocean, who seems to reluctant at all times, allows us a glimpse into his creative process, and in the end, it’s a world we want a wide scope of.
And yet, like every negotiation with Ocean throughout his impressive career, what is given is a choice that only has one decision maker. On Sunday at WayHome, Ocean appeared not only as someone who is finally capable of being comfortable in front of an audience, but someone who is ready to reveal more of himself, and make the rest of his career a shared experience.