Legions braved a deluge last night, huffing over to the Hudson to share “An Evening with Frank Ocean,” as it was wholesomely billed, a sold-out, all-ages show at the cavernous Terminal 5. Focusing exclusively on the main event, there were no opening acts to contend with, just Prince and Rihanna serving as hypemen in absentia by way of background music. Very near to show time, “We Found Love” spurred a high energy singalong that segued naturally into a pep rally for Ocean: Frankie, Frankie, Frankie. Legs and arms poked and swayed out of every opening in the venue’s double-tiered balcony, the cold, post-apocalyptic feel of the space coupled with all these excited bodies brought to mind the spectator scenes from The Hunger Games. A little after nine, Ocean came out on stage to greet riotous whoops and applause with a spare and soulful rendition of Sade’s “By Your Side.” He sat beneath a blue spotlight, his signature red-and-white bandana encircling his brow like a crown of thorns, with his heart on his sleeve and the audience in the palm of his hand.
The rest of the evening swung easily between songs on Ocean’s new release Channel Orange, material off Nostalgia, Ultra as well as little snippets of Ocean’s guest appearances interwoven into the set list. After his first song, he said hello to New York before motioning up to the balcony to give a shout out to his “family in the building.” Tyler the Creator, who was up on high and included in that familial embrace, flashed his big, gap-toothed smile back down to the throngs below, waving and hamming for the crowd, who’d worked themselves into a frenzy at the sight his face. Ocean introduced his next song, the jaunty, guitar-driven “Summer Remains” mounting a two-song slow lead up to “Thinking Bout You,” his single, which also appears on Channel Orange, his first full-length release on Def Jam. The audience sang along in unabashed unison, hitting the high notes in the hook like trained sopranos fallen flat on their faces. Ocean lead the wayward chorus, tweaking his usual phrasing ever so slightly to make room for everyone—do you not think so far…a-head—pitching a few notes high enough to make a dog wince, but delivering each line so cool and casually, even the sour notes sounded sweet.
Ocean, who’s still pretty green when it comes to live performances, seems to have significantly warmed to stardom. He held the stage with an easy, good-natured self possession, bantering with the audience occasionally, saying he “wouldn’t ask” if they bought his new album legally (though Def Jam will be happy to know that a group of college-age guys to my left admitted that it was, in fact, one of the first albums they’d bought in a long time.) Still, the ever-humble Ocean often introduced his songs by explaining which of his two releases it came from, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the audience already knew and was mouthing every word. They dissected and hypothesized about the set list, went wild over the old hits “Novacane,” “Swim Good” and “Strawberry Swing” (which segued nicely into a mini version of Ocean’s guest spot on Kanye and Jay-Z’s “Made In America”) but were no less enthusiastic or familiar with Channel Orange’s “Super Rich Kids” or “Forrest Gump.” The energy never flagged, not even during the ambling nine-plus minute “Pyramids.”
The highlight of the evening—admittedly the moment I’d been anticipating—came when Ocean addressed his written statement about his first love being a man. He elegantly confronted the fact that “some people said things and others didn’t” and the crowd, decidedly in the latter camp, threw their arms up full support, as he commenced “Bad Religion,” a song about that relationship. The crowd was rapturous by the end of the song and Ocean paused just a beat longer than usual to accept their praise with a smile so warm and appreciative there couldn’t have been a soul in the place unmoved. In that moment, Ocean humanized a national debate (and crippling polarity), and it was thrilling to see the response.
In fact, watching Ocean run through his ballads, stories of America’s new warped pastoral, dissolution, confusion, class issues, drug issues, love, dreams, I couldn’t help but draw a comparison with another pop star who’s fledged a career of telling American stories to the American people. Bruce Springsteen, of course, is the subject of David Remnick’s billion-word profile in this week’s New Yorker, which traces the artist’s creation myth in all its truths and contradictions, sketching the makings of the populist pop icon of the baby boom generation and his ability to reach the last man standing at the back of the stadium. Ocean is still developing his showmanship, and his IRL engagement with the audience and with his own band (who, in this case, seemed like little more than decently-practiced acquaintances), but at the same time, the engagement required today is new and different. In his story, Remnick references Jon Landau’s infamous review of a 1974 Springsteen show, which said: “I saw rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen.” Of course, I’m not going to make any sweeping proclamations about Ocean or the future of R&B, or rather, this ever-evolving genre-less pop. But I will say that I believe Ocean has the potential to reach the back of the many stadiums he will undoubtedly be billed to play, to touch hearts and change minds. For all the criticisms vollied at our generation: our solipsism, our entitlement, our capriciousness, our inability to think past the last tweet, we also possess a relative openness that’s striking (even to this millennial on the cusp). To see a bunch of bros at full attention, earnestly singing their hearts out, to see a young couple in full embrace, singing to each other as Ocean decried his “Bad Religion,” I couldn’t help but think how lucky we are to have a popular voice that’s thinking so far ahead, about forever, today.