For the second straight year, FYF Fest has assembled arguably America’s most impressive festival lineup. Its poster reads like a best-case psychedelic hallucination, featuring Missy Elliot, Björk, Nine Inch Nails, Iggy Pop, Erykah Badu, Anderson .Paak, Nicolas Jaar, A Tribe Called Quest, Flying Lotus and Run the Jewels.
But judging from conversations I’ve had about the festival, you’d think only one artist was booked: Saturday night’s headliner, Frank Ocean. It’s an understandable obsession, considering the orphic crooner hasn’t played domestically since 2014 — a span that included multiple last-minute cancellations (including 2015’s FYF) and album delays that finally culminated in the release of last year’s Endless and Blonde.
From the moment Christopher Francis Breaux rechristened himself Frank Ocean, he vocally dismissed R&B classification. The comparisons seemed logical considering his initial patron was Tricky Stewart, closest collaborator of The-Dream. But Ocean’s brief, asymmetrical career has already included detours into techno, acoustic singer-singwriter votives in the vein of Elliott Smith, Coldplay covers and the odd carpentry stint.
We spoke once by telephone in 2011, one of his first and last interviews, given shortly before he adopted his monastic sensibilities. I was struck not just by his intelligence but also by how sharply limned his vision already was. His commitment to innovation was unyielding, but he refused to shy away from nostalgia. He’d already realized the artistic perils of letting self-esteem be dependent on critical acclaim and offhand compliments. He firmly understood himself as a lyricist and storyteller, a writer dedicated to refining phrases without forsaking complexity and emotional turbulence.
To these ears, Ocean’s catalog can be slightly overrated. While he’s frequently brilliant (“Pink and White,” “Novacane,” “Pyramids”), the peripatetic car collector also is prone to inconsistent experimentation (almost the entirety of Endless), and his minimalist inclinations can lead to writing insubstantial sketches. He’s full of interesting ideas, but not all reach melodic climax.
But all artists need the creative freedom to fail, and even at his most refractory, Ocean fearlessly refuses to accept conventional logic. Whether via his now-iconic Tumblr post about his sexuality or his refusal to submit songs for consideration at last year’s Grammys, he’s an archetypal modern rebel.
There’s a subtlety to his actions that seems perennially anachronistic. Rather than live in L.A. and be devoured by the music industry, he’s opted for a nomadic existence, temporarily haunting hotels and unfurnished rooms, dropping songs without warning, eschewing social media and backing out of performances on a whim. When his Def Jam contract expired, he opted to remain independent and bought back his publishing and masters at a steep personal cost.
After his vanishing act, he’s remained consistently active through the last 12 months, collaborating with Calvin Harris, A$AP Rocky, Migos and his sometime Odd Future kindred spirit, Tyler, the Creator. If a guiding undercurrent to his actions exists, it might be his brief aside during our lone conversation: “I’m all about taste.” You can see that on his Blonded Radio shows and Spotify playlist, which included Burial, Dâm-Funk, Caribou and Memphis regional rap legend Shawty Pimp.
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For a generation doomed to overshare, Ocean has mastered the terrain of the shadows, offering scraps of information to sustain permanent intrigue but remaining so aloof as to burnish his mystique. It’s unclear whether it’s intentional savvy or an aversion to celebrity (most likely both), but Ocean instantiates what so many of us wish we could do: Disappear at the first migraine moment. In these contradictory actions and scarcity, he embodies a sense of freedom and the willingness to walk away. These are the gifts that keep people wondering.