Frank Ocean at Lollapalooza 2012 | Photos and music review
It's not easy going against the rabid fan base for the Red Hot Chili Peppers. At least, that's what I told myself when I reached the Google stage about 10 minutes ahead of Frank Ocean's sorta-headlining, rain-delayed set, where I saw a sizable crowd—but still fewer than I expected for an artist who's become a press magnet in the last month. Those who were there, however, lost their shit as soon as he was in sight, well before he even uttered a word. Trademark headband tied firmly around his forehead, Ocean began the hour as he has other dates on his current jaunt: modestly. Seated on a stool backed by a pair of dudes on acoustic guitars who eased him into Sade's gentle "By Your Side," the subtle opener screamed confidence on the rising singer's part. Who needs spectacle when you can kill them quietly?
Dozens of television monitors draped the stage, some recycling salt-and-pepper static, others outputting saturated color closer to a CMYK display. They were stacked on the corner of the stage and in the back, in addition to being mounted on a UFO-type prop that sprung up early in the set. But the TVs glowed hollow, not unlike the titular characters on "Super Rich Kids" off Ocean's stunning new channel ORANGE. (That tune, disappointingly, was absent from tonight's set.)
"We had a little rain today. I'm happy y'all are back out," the NOLA native greeted us before the band launched into a faithful rendition of the new album's opening cut, "Thinkin Bout You." I wasn't the only one swooning when Ocean lifted his voice into the falsetto refain: "Or do you not think so far ahead/'Cause I've been thinking 'bout forever." The guy's pipes are precise and powerful, live, but that jump an octave or so takes what he's doing to a whole other level.
The band—a four-piece consisting of guitar, bass, keys and drums—began to bring the volume up after that, bouncing through "Novacane" off the L.A.-based artist's debut, Nostalgia, Ultra., at times reaching the technically fluid peaks but over-precise studio perfection of a standard-issue hip-hop live band. Nevertheless, Ocean had the crowd in the palm of his hand, proceeding to work through more of the mixtape before giving our city props for having "some of the flyest architecture I've seen on the whole tour."
"Made in America," one of Ocean's two contributions to Jay-Z and Kanye West's Watch the Throne, came later, before the singer shouted out the ubiquitous white-boxed water found in every corner of Grant Park this weekend. Motivational speaker or maybe minister was his next mode, encouraging us to love our neighbor and spread the love around before launching into "American Wedding," after which he (finally) devoted a block to the new album.
The sexy, steamrolling groove of "Monks" triggered a big sigh of relief—tunes like this were what so many of us had been waiting for all night. After that he offered us another new one, "if you'll let me." Who was going to say no? The slinking funk of "Crack Rock" hit perfectly, Ocean never missing a beat. Soon after he was delivering a somewhat sobering aside to address his recent news-making revelation that he'd harbored feelings for men, thanking fans for helping him to abandon his fear before launching into the hymn-like song for which all the controversy served as a set-up: "Bad Religion." The epic, suite-like "Pyramids" closed this moody set, and as the chilling, multi-chambered pop tune morphed from its dancefloor-oriented top half into its eerie, unsettling but transfixing slither of an ending, a sea of hands flooded the air in a show of strength set against the empty glare of all those monitors.