Published Jul 18, 2012Lights out, cameras on. It's Frank Ocean's moment in the literal and figurative spotlight, and he's absolutely owning it.
In the darkened Wiltern, lit by a thousand cellphone camera flashes, Ocean began his hometown show in support of his major label debut, Channel Orange. It was, as they say, a moment: less than a week after its impromptu digital release, the crowd already knew every word to Orange's tracks, starting with the opening notes to "Thinkin' Bout You."
When Ocean wasn't singing, his impassioned fans, male and female, young and, to my right, pretty damn old, were screaming at the tops of their lungs, swaying sensually to his buttery croon. Their reaction was to be expected -- this is Ocean's first real headlining tour -- but there's still something odd about seeing Ocean in front of a crowd. He's not very good at playing the pop-star part; even onstage, he's meek and humble, he mumbles only short, concise intros to the next song, and his "party talk" ("Who's drinking up in here?") seems forced.
What comes naturally to Ocean is music. His vocals seem, even at their most emphatic, effortless, and his natural confidence in his abilities makes it so even that his spontaneous vocal flourishes, such as those added to "Sweet Life," come across as necessary to the song. After "Novacane" came "Forrest Gump," a Channel Orange album track on which Ocean's four-man backing band -- a drummer, keyboardist, guitarist and bassist, whose absolute musicianship and ability to fill an eclectic album's worth of musical roles is worth noting -- shone especially brightly.
On "Super Rich Kids" out came Earl Sweatshirt, prompting yet another frenzied howl from the crowd, with his drawled verse being treated as the end of the song, if only to emphasize that he exists. But Earl's appearance was only one of many special moments of the evening. Elsewhere, a house-lights-up climax on "Strawberry Swing," the chorus from Watch the Throne's "Made in America" as an interlude and a stripped-down "American Wedding," written with a new chord progression to show Mr. Henley that Ocean took his song because it sounded great, not because he couldn't have written anything better, were all-show-stoppers.
After non-album track "Voodoo" and Channel Orange tracks "White," "Crack Rock" and "Lost," back-to-back highlights "Bad Religion" and "Pyramids" closed the show. The former's forlorn vocal delivery and minor-key changes were just as powerful live as on record, especially in light of Ocean's recent sexual admissions; the latter brought the positive mood back around, and found Ocean showing well-earned pride in his epic by air-conducting the song's synth breakdown with gusto. After its tooth-rattling bass crescendo, Ocean seemed to revel in the slow, triumphant denouement of the song. By its end, the crowd was not just screaming, but applauding, emphatically, suggesting not just that they were having fun, but that they respected and realized the extent of Ocean's grand musical achievement.
Ocean had already shouted out his hometown, claiming that "My family is here; I fuck with L.A. in a special way," but it was as the crowd waited for his encore, affectionately chanting "Frankie" repeatedly, that the mutual reverence in the sold-out Wiltern became clear. If the rest of Ocean's tour stops are even half this good, fans are in for some legendary shows.
Below, you can watch some YouTube clips of the night's show.
"Super Rich Kids" (ft. Earl Sweatshirt):
"When You Were Mine" (Prince cover):