On “Nikes,” the first song of his new album, Blonde, the register of Ocean’s voice is pitched up to sound like Krang. He sings “Pour up for A$AP / RIP Pimp C / RIP Trayvon, that nigga look just like me.” It’s a proclamation of grief for the late impresario A$AP Yams, UGK’s Pimp C, and, of course, Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old Florida student who was killed by George Zimmerman. This is perhaps not the sweltering ballad that some expected at the top of the long-awaited album by Ocean, an artist who pursues obfuscation in album titles, release dates, and identity, among other things. But it is an involving introduction to a piece of work that seems to thrive on its own wooziness. Only, it isn’t exactly being received as such.
This is my favorite thing on the internet. Misheard lyrics, and the commodification of such, is old news. There are entire books dedicated to the idea. But this is different. This is not drunk frat boys howling inscrutably to “Louie Louie” or some goof barking “Kickin’ your cat all over the place” at an Eagles game. This isn’t you and your boys muttering half bars to Biggie in the backseat of a Volvo. This isn’t side-eye from your wife as you reach for the upper register on a Whitney Houston song whose power is so profound it obscures the words. This is different because it’s public.
Once upon a time, you could sing wrongness to your hearts’ desire, no one to shame you but loved ones unafraid to call you out. Sometimes singing the wrong words is empowering, invigorating. “’Scuse me while I kiss this guy” is a far more transgressive interpretation of Jimi Hendrix’s message than the true words. The incorrect lyric is sometimes the best lyric. “RIP Pimp C” is a sincere thought, but it is understood. Here, have a look at all of the other times it has been uttered in a song. Here is the first return for a Google search of “RIP Pepsi”:
That is a YouTube clip dedicated to a recently departed pet rabbit. It has 157 views. One assumes the “RIP Pepsi” listeners were not confusing the intention of Ocean’s misheard lyric. They thought Frank Ocean was memorializing an active soft-drink brand.
The phenomenon of mishearing lyrics has taken on new stripes. The writing/podcasting brothers Jeff and Eric Rosenthal of ItsTheReal are high-level purveyors of the misheard lyric tweet phenomenon. Look to their feed for the great instances:
There is no better moment in my time trawling the pain tube that is Twitter than when one of the Rosenthals retweets an account that has garbled Kanye West’s 2012 lyric, “Tell PETA my mink is dragging on the floor.”
The song, “Cold,” is more than four years old, but the “Peter/PETA” war persists. That this has happened in the time of Genius (formerly Rap Genius) — a site literally created to clarify not just the lyrics but the meaning of songs — to say nothing of our unbound connectivity to information and digital human interaction, is a marvel. That people are so wrong inside of #Actually culture is a testament to approachable weakness. These are public acts of failure, of vulnerability, of idiocy. They are human frailty in real time. We are all dying slowly. Pepsi is alive and well.