Actually, Frank Ocean’s Coachella Set Was Great

“It’s been so long. Everybody talks about how long it’s been,’” Frank Ocean told an uneasy crowd at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival on Sunday evening. “But I have missed you.”

Ocean started his highly anticipated headlining set about an hour late. Before that, crew members buzzed around the front of the stage beneath a monolithic screen, seemingly still building the set. Earlier that day, the internet lit up at the realization that Ocean’s performance—his first live show since 2017, having been rescheduled after the pandemic derailed his plan to headline Coachella in 2020—wouldn’t be livestreamed as planned. When I arrived at the festival grounds around 4 p.m. that afternoon, an event employee working the bag check station delivered bad (if unconfirmed) news: I shouldn’t tell you this, but Frank’s not here. He pulled out. 

At the witching hour, when a screen in front of the main stage plainly assured that “Frank Ocean will begin at 10:05,” a packed crowd was exhausted and on-edge. Concertgoers, some wearing bootleg or handmade Frank merch or dressed in head-to-toe Channel Orange-orange ensembles, wondered aloud if he’d even show up. Playing on repeat in my head was Ocean’s churning chorus on Jay-Z and Ye’s collab track “No Church in the Wild,” which would briefly play aloud here within the hour:

Human beings in a mob / What’s a mob to a king? / What’s a king to a God? / What’s a God to a non-believer / who don’t believe in anything?

When Ocean finally took to the stage on Sunday, he seemed anxious, too. He also seemed excited. His set opened with an amped-up version of “Novacane,” the single from his 2011 mixtape Nostalgia Ultra that kickstarted his career ascension—you know, the one on which he sings about meeting a girl at Coachella. (In the week before his performance, fans thought the project might finally land on streaming platforms—a rumor spurned by BMW’s Instagram post of a model quite similar to the pearlescent orange BMW E30 M3 that appears on Nostalgia’s album artwork.) From there, he segued into an unreleased 2021 track called “Come On World, You Can’t Go!” whose lyrics framed his tension as an artist: “I can’t be great ’til I can escape.” If Frank had successfully escaped, here he was, pulled back again.

He scurried about the stage, wearing a bright blue Mammut puffer with the hood pulled up snug over a black durag (a variation on a beloved outfit he wore in Paris a few years back), rejiggering logistics with managers and technicians in real time. “This is chaos,” he admitted to a crowd that had already caught on. Yet he performed as though he couldn’t wait to show us what he’s been into lately, mixing several of his most-loved tracks into new arrangements none of us had ever heard before.

Clad in his insulated space suit, from his frenetic alcove beneath the stage, Ocean mystified the audience at points, either playing stripped down versions of his hits, or playing the studio audio of old tracks while he lip-synced and danced around stage with a toothy grin, cheeky-mugging at the camera. At some point, he toted out the tennis-ball-green robot baby he brought to the 2021 Met Gala. But early on, he let us in on where his head was at: He was performing here tonight not because he had new music to release any time soon, but because he to used to attend Coachella with his younger brother Ryan Breaux, who died in a car accident in 2020 at age 18. 

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