Frankie. Frankie. Frankie. Packed into the Wiltern Theater, 2,300 strong, these high-wired Los Angelenos are pleading like there might not be an encore. The mood is dizzy, sweet, puff green. Drake is here. Frankie. Frankie. Seems like half the audience is wearing or carrying fresh T-shirts. The merch booth sold out fully, 15 minutes before showtime. Frankie. How does everybody know his nickname, the nickname you’d give your little brother, if your little brother were named Frank Ocean?This is Ocean’s fourth show, the second since his new album, Channel Orange, met an early release date–and went to number one on iTunes within the hour. From Start to End, it’s breathtaking. The crowd is waiting to exhale. They feel like they need him (and so do I, so much; I have to tell you). There is no harder bargain than the affection of the disaffected, and Ocean, who wrote both Nostalgia, Ultra and Channel Orange in the glam, sinister city where he now strolls the stage, scores it with scary ease. All the Super Rich Kids are here, and the less rich kids, too. Doesn’t matter which: Ocean knows their feel.
“I fell in love here, I got my heart broken here,” he says, having just lit up every iPhone in the room with Thinkin About You. “I got a little famous here, I got a little paid here.” He grins. “I [mess] with L.A. in a special way.”
It’s a special place. Ocean knows the pace of L.A., knows its palm-laced, desultory frustrations, knows all the long, long ways and profligate means at loose ends. Channel Orange has 3 a.m. club tracks and morning benders, but mostly it has traffic jams. There are no sober drivers on the freeway. There are “no babies” signs on dumpsters. There is no “heart of L.A.,” geographically or psychologically or, like, emotionally. There’s just atomization in the sun.
Along this post-Didion landscape, Ocean rules. He’s suitably melancholy in his croon, like Stevie Wonder, or Prince (or maybe I’m only saying that because he opened, nervily, with Prince). He gets deep and demotic, like Patti Smith, but never actually raps (are people still calling him a rapper? People are the worst). At his highest points, he sings the bitter Sweet Life, or Nostalgia ’s unhappy American Wedding, with a shimmering ambivalence that makes his fans sweat with the pure opposite: love.
I worried – actually worried – he couldn’t live up to it, only four shows in. Halfway through, he’s singing Forrest Gump when the bridge collapses and he stops, shakes his head, says “hope y’all forgive me for that.” Y’all do. First, because he follows it up with Odd Future co-star Earl Sweatshirt, cameoing in a camouflage bucket hat, on that awesomely deadpan Super Rich Kids. Secondly, because watching Frankie sing in that signature falsetto is like watching a figure skater go for gold. He doesn’t always hit the triple axel, but when he lands the double instead, it’s so smooth you barely feel cheated. And once, he lands a note so high my heart cracks like glass.
Then he gets to Bad Religion. All strings and confession, it always felt like the climax of Channel Orange, a slow, irreversible spill of heart made explicit by Ocean’s letter – posted online two weeks before the album release – about loving a man. There’s some confusion in the room: one guy near me says “gayyyyy,” another shouts (teasingly), calling him a bisexual while yet another says “I love you, Frankie!” only to be warned by his friend that “Frankie” might take him up on that. Hazily annoyed, I wonder where those bros with the spliff went, but soon it doesn’t matter. “If it brings me to my knees,” he moans, “it’s a bad religion.” His voice makes me feel too stoned to cry.
Pyramids is the last song, it has to be the last song. An 11-minute conceptual banger, it’s the reason the crowd needs to dance, or at least sway convincingly. Ocean pulls it off and walks away. His ace band keeps playing. I see why these kids seem so anxious he won’t come back: He looks, penultimately, more tired than triumphant. But he comes back. He plays a bare-keys version of I Miss You, the song he wrote for Beyonce’s album 4, and it’s not as great, but it’s a good comedown. When Frankie is gone and the lights go on, his voice hangs like angel dust in the air.