In his video for “Nikes,” Frank Ocean leans on a Ueno Clinic McLaren F1 GTR underneath a swath of blossoming cherry trees while sipping out of a Styrofoam cup. The song was released just hours before his third album proper, Blonde (or Blond, depending on where you got it), hit Apple Music. A restored BMW E30 M3 and an Aston Martin DBR9 also make appearances in the video, along with various other automobiles. For Ocean, cars are not just accessories or signifiers of wealth and status, though they’re definitely those things, too.
From the Mustang 5.0 on the cover of the external-hard-drive-dump The Lonny Breaux Collection, to the Sunkist-orange BMW E30 that graced the cover of Nostalgia, Ultra, to the begrudging respect he showed the new Bentley truck on his personal website, cars, for Ocean, are like waypoints, signposts for memories, or living, breathing dioramas that can provide complete systems for living.
In a note, opposite a modded, chrome gold E30 M3, inside the extremely Tumblr-core Boys Don’t Cry zine, jointly released with the equally Tumblr-core Blonde, he explained his car obsession, one that fashion designer Raf Simons once told him was a “cliché.” Ocean reflected on the process of finishing the album and the various things that shaped its sound, like smoking and playing rough demos through an aux cord in a “sinewy crossover SUV.” But it all started with a photo:
“How much of my life has happened inside of a car?”
That’s so artless and plain, but so overfull at the same time. When you think about a car you might be concerned with things like horsepower or body style or how low it sits in turns. What a curious and inward-looking question to ask about something ordinarily appreciated from the outside.
I thought about my scrawny legs dangling over the passenger seat of my dad’s Chevy Silverado, when he taught me that “my rights end where another person’s nose begins.” I thought about how time stretched to a crawl when I had my first car crash in a navy blue Chrysler Sebring convertible, and I realized I wasn’t made of glass. I thought about the burgundy hatchback Scion TC that I had my first kiss in.
I remembered how my my parents told me that if I finished college in four years (and not a single minute over; this was emphasized) with a respectable GPA and a degree I “could actually use,” I would be rewarded with a car, somewhere in the $20,000 range. When my aunt (let’s call her Aunt E.) caught wind of this, she had a single directive to offer: “Don’t get a BMW. Every nigga with money gets a BMW.” At the time, I obviously didn’t have any money, so I technically wasn’t breaking any rules when I settled on a black 2007 335i with peanut-butter leather seats that already had 60,000 miles on it.
I named it “Bagheera.” I pulled up to a family gathering at Aunt E.’s house in it with the windows down blaring Cadillac Don & J-Money’s “Peanut Butter and Jelly” because I was a caricature of myself and thought I had the juice like that. I barely had the money to put a full tank of premium gas in it, but I still had a BMW, and I loved that thing. When I finally overcame postgraduate inertia I drove it all the way from Louisiana to Boston, and when I failed to make something of myself there I drove it to Los Angeles to make better mistakes.
It turns out you live a lot of life and do a lot of growing up in and around cars, which is something that Frank understands. He once locked himself in the trunk of his car to conquer his fear of tight spaces. He probably found out who his friends were when he was stranded on the side of the Santa Monica Freeway at 2:30 in the morning, in need of a tow to the nearest gas station.
Maybe that’s what he was talking about on “Futura Free,” Blonde’s nine-plus-minute, album-closing, medal-podium speech, when he asks “remember when I had that Lexus,” and doesn’t fully get the question out before recalling that “Naw, our friendship don’t go back that far.”
Blonde cuts between memories and new experiences, pegging cars Frank has driven to formative periods in his life, referencing makes and models like class years, or maybe titles in a short story collection. On “Ivy,” while lamenting a lost love, he reminisces about the drives he used to make to Syd’s house, back when he had the X6. Back when he was a “kid”; though here, “kid” seems more like a function of maturity than age. He admits in the Boys Don’t Cry note that the past has shrunken so far in the rearview that he’s nearly convinced himself that it was all good. He seems aware to the perils of, and firmly against, veering into the past.
The here-and-now and the over-and-done-with, divided by a double yellow line.
Consider this: Maybe Frank took four years off to grow up in peace. And in those four years, maybe cars were his escape. Lusting after them, collecting them, driving them. Driving is its own kind of vacation or budget therapy. Whether it’s bombing down the curves of a vacant Laurel Canyon at dusk with the city lights rising up to greet you or watching the clouds drift overhead as you coast down the PCH. The driver’s seat can be a place where you can live your life and not think about your life at all.
Or maybe it’s just where you find out how fast your new hoopty can get from zero to 60.
Blonde is an album made for driving.
On “Solo,” arguably Blonde’s best song, though I reserve the right to change my mind at any moment without reason or warning, Frank says he prefers “red lights” to highways. It’s a thumbnail for his whole career, and an answer for fans that felt comically hard done by his creative process. That process seemed glacial, but was actually just painstaking: It was about getting there on his own terms. It was never about getting there as fast as possible.