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What’s a God to a Machine?

Frank Ocean emerged from self-imposed exile to headline Coachella Weekend 1. After a polarizing set, he won’t be returning for Weekend 2. What does his performance say about artistry in an increasingly algorithmic and AI-generated world?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

They’re all here waiting. Anxiously swaying on the Sabbath. Impatiently jostling for better sight lines. Blinking with the neuroses that begin to take root when the face of the messiah will never be revealed, no matter how many months of rent are sacrificed for a “Jester on Dice” Homer pendant studded with nine lab-grown diamonds and 18 karats of gold.

Zoom in (3x) on the TikTok sorority blonds with the matching jean shorts and white Chucks and “I <3 Frank Ocean” baby tees. The Cobra Kai–headbanded and Jokic-jerseyed consultants who scrawled “Frankchella” on their Jeep Wranglers before plodding east from Venice. The sensitive pilgrims with twice as many stick-and-poke lyric tattoos as their idol has albums, traveling thousands of miles for the resurrection, who crouched like sprinters at the starter’s block and stampeded to the front of the stage as soon as the Coachella gates opened at noon.

Ignore the feral influencers caged behind the VIP fence, pouting with plump lips in crop-top tanks and baggy jeans unseen since Nocturnal Wonderland raves that occurred long before they were born. There are nautical realists, shirtless in admiral caps, sipping “Super Rich Kids” frozen drinks made of banana chip vodka and crème de coconut ($25 for a double, sponsored by Absolut and American Express). There are organic garden–variety millennials, too, who have spent countless hours weeping to sexually fraught divorce music for dorm rooms, whose sense of identity was forged from the communal pain of generational dislocation, screen-damaged nostalgia, and social media self-immolation. From the ancient grove of palm trees and polo fields, Coachella hath returned.

On the final evening of the first weekend of the three-day festival, a black flat-screen announces, “Frank Ocean will begin at 10:05.” But as the anointed time comes and goes, the mood on the field turns sullen. Three girls holding hands agree that “he’s nervous.” A mournful panic becomes pervasive—as though the delay triggers depressive flashbacks of supernatural expectations long unrealized. A girl abruptly faints onto the grass, causing a flurry of flashing lights, swarming EMTs, and frantic commands to “clear the area!” She is ultimately fine.

After myriad cancellations, false starts, and the unsubstantiated Reddit hearsay that has passed for updates since Ocean’s last show at FYF in 2017, the reclusive, nomadic R&B deconstructionist-cum-purveyor of bootleg Kendall Roy merch is finally, allegedly going to perform. He is set to follow Friday night’s headliner Bad Bunny—the biggest crossover artist in Latin American history and star of the next Spiderman movie—and Saturday’s marquee, the K-pop Deep Blue, Blackpink. Yet the enigmatic New Orleans native is the most anticipated main event since Beyoncé split the difference between Athena and Aretha half a decade ago.

As the agony stretches to 30, then 45 minutes, rumors proliferate. Are there technical difficulties—and if so, who needs the guillotine? Are they revving up the engine of the vintage orange BMW from Nostalgia, Ultra that’s rumored to be a part of the set design? Is Ocean even on the premises, or is he merely waiting for the technicians to arrange a stream of the new Succession—just like how Prince watched the NBA playoffs onstage while ripping leviathan guitar solos? A friend behind the curtain texts to tell me that the staging area is bedlam. A crew of technicians is furiously attempting to melt an ice-skating rink that was slated to be a vital part of the production until Ocean changed his mind at the last minute.

The timeline offers updates about the on-the-ground travails and angrily laments the lack of an official livestream, which was nixed at the last minute. Like World War I medics offering triage, people swiftly share accounts promising a view from the crowd. Whatever remaining energy is left fixates on “Heart on My Sleeve,” the first AI-created viral hit, written by a semi-anonymous TikTok creator named @ghostwriter977 and featuring a counterfeit Drake and the Weeknd. A hip-hop producer whom I once profiled says that it “blew him away.” Another wonders “why is the ai Drake Weekend [sic] song better than Drake and weekend [sic] songs lol.” In its first 24 hours, it racks up roughly 12 million streams across various platforms. (By Tuesday morning, UMG lawyers successfully force its removal.)

Late Friday night, the Weeknd had popped up to do a surprise six-song set during Metro Boomin’s performance in Coachella’s Sahara thunder dome. Maybe it’s fitting that Ocean indirectly followed the Canadian R&B behemoth, to whom he was frequently compared during the early years of the last decade—when both were lumped into the Tumblr-driven, indie-slanting phenomenon “PBR&B.” Most commonalities quickly passed. The Weeknd reaped massive rewards for becoming one with the machine. He jettisoned coke-fugue-at-the-after-party sleaze for chromatic maximalist pop. The acquiescence earned him 30 platinum singles (including the most-streamed song ever on Spotify, The Ringer’s parent company), four Grammys, two Coachella headlining slots, and a Super Bowl halftime show. He was named the world’s “Most Popular Artist” by Guinness and feuded on-screen with Adam Sandler over Julia Fox.

By contrast, Ocean shunned the main-character culture of constant exposure and chronic repetition and instead sought the path of subversion and resistance. He publicly spurned the Grammys, let social media accounts languish, and left the major label system as soon as his contract expired. Channel Orange and Blonde were the instantly canonized soundtracks of the first generation to have known the world only through the fault lines and distortion of the terminally online. The former yielded “Thinkin Bout You,” a heartsick prayer for forever that discovered the missing link between Sam Cooke, Pet Sounds, and Radiohead. The song was nominated for the Record of the Year Grammy—back when Ocean bothered to show up—but he’d settle for a Best Urban Contemporary Album trophy. On the almost 10-minute “Pyramids,” Ocean invented an entire genre of prog-disco R&B with a historical fable that weaves between death by asp in ancient Egypt and a stripper named Cleopatra working at the Pyramids. If you don’t have at least one unprintable story involving it from the last decade, you should be allowed to travel back in time for a redo.

Shortly before Channel Orange dropped, Ocean obliquely and elegantly discussed a prior romantic attraction to a man in a post on his Tumblr. At the time, the gesture had few precedents in R&B and hip-hop history. In the Los Angeles Times, the writer Gerrick D. Kennedy accurately called it “the glass ceiling moment for music. Especially black music which has long been in desperate need of a voice like Ocean’s to break the layers of homophobia.” You can chart the impact in the artists who followed in his wake, including Lil Nas X, iLoveMakonnen, Kevin Abstract, and even Ocean’s Odd Future confrere, Tyler, the Creator.

In 2016, the spare and refined Blonde made him a religion to those young enough to spiritually identify with a skit about getting caught cheating on Facebook, and also Brad Pitt. It debuted at no. 1 on the Billboard charts, a rarity for an independent album. Ocean wrote minimalist reveries for a simpler past and a luxurious present that are imbued with sordid lust and the haunted suspicion that it will be all downhill from here. Points were made.

Things got shaky from there. Dozens of shows were canceled. His recorded output trickled to a clutch of scattered, un-promoted singles, and none in the last three years. Rumors that he would drop a new album before Coachella proved unfounded. Apart from the rare episode of Blonded Radio, a few ultraexclusive pre-pandemic queer club parties in New York, and the occasional headline for hawking $25,000 diamond and gold cock rings, Ocean’s recent story has largely been a tall tale. He’s a grail figure in a Grailed world, an adherent of the auteur tradition with the financial means and the restraint to be scarce. He even sacrificed the chance to sell merch at Coachella, which led his most devout to bid on a “No Frank Ocean Merch” sign.

For now, all we can see are large yellow circles with light beams emanating from the center. A symbol for a cult with a fine jewelry line. There is a rectangular aperture built into the giant screens, offering a glimpse of the backstage interior, where people hurriedly walk back and forth in partial darkness. At a shade short of 11 p.m., the lights dim, the 50-yard screens fade to black, and the crowd whoops in jubilant relief. A neon city or space station appears out of a dim blur of colorful flashes. Ominous figures in security vests stalk in concentric loops. The effect is somewhere between a night stroll on the Death Star and a Yeezy fashion show.

What feels menacing and cryptic soon becomes deadening. The parade of silhouettes endures for five minutes, deflating the tension. But none of it matters when “Novacane” starts blaring from the speakers, an olive branch to dissolve lingering frustration—it’s the song that initially helped blow him up back in 2011, when he was being marketed as an auxiliary member of OF (who happened to have a deal on Def Jam).

A glowing wall of cameras stretches into the air, the disciples preparing their ultimate flex: Frank Ocean at Coachella singing the song about Coachella.

“I think I started something / I got what I wanted / I can’t feel nothing,” Ocean croons, the crowd chanting in euphoria.

But then his vocals fade out, the next lines go unsung, the momentum severed. The beat switches, ominous sci-fi noises creep. His band lights into a swing reminiscent of King of Limbs–era Radiohead. The shadow men loop on-screen, and Ocean starts singing back from the top, but his lungs fail to pierce, his cadences moving slightly too fast, then the vocals vanish again—as though he can’t remember the lyrics.

“I met her at Coachella,” he cuts back in. A 25-year-old emo-goth behind me wearing a black gossamer and leather corset exclaims, “I love that fucking line!”

But Ocean forgets the next bars, stumbling and recovering again to finish but stripping the song of the pacing, tension, and phrasing that made it Tumblr Old Testament. Instead of him alighting onto the next track, there are two minutes of awkward silence (that also impair nearly every transition throughout the set). This is when it starts to become clear that something has gone wrong. Whatever plans were laid out have gone awry. They’re doing this on the fly, seemingly unsure what to play next and how to interpret it.

It will later be revealed that this is exactly what happened. Multiple reports have since emerged that on the day of the performance, Ocean unexpectedly scrapped plans to perform alongside 120 hockey players and Olympic figure skaters after about a month of planning. The flimsy excuse given was that he’d hurt his ankle biking and doctors advised him to radically shift his stage show, as though fans were expecting him to anchor the Frank Ocean Ice Capades. I’m no trained orthopedist, but judging from how he danced onstage during parts of his set, limp-free, most team physicians would clear him to play in an elimination game. Medical orders were also the excuse on Wednesday afternoon when Ocean canceled his Weekend 2 performance, citing two left leg fractures.

“It was chaotic,” he said in a statement describing his performance. “[But] there is some beauty in chaos.”

This is unequivocal. In a moment on Sunday night, Ocean cloisters himself behind the wall, sitting on a stool and beatifically murmuring, “I can be great, I can escape.” These are the lyrics from an obscure deep cut that’s from a Blonded Radio Christmas special and that operates as a self-affirming mantra. The vulnerable and sensitive Katrina refugee who relocated to L.A. with the dream of becoming what he became, only to find himself trapped in a bewildering prism-prison of fame.

The screens reveal the innards of the backstage area: the intricate scaffolding, the wires connected to glowing electric machines. It operates as an interesting conceit—a mirror image of the exposed interiors of these hymns, the enigmatic titan shrouded in mystique. The effect is like Synecdoche, New York or The Truman Show, but everything about the concept feels unfinished. It offers a glimpse into the sketchbook of Frank Ocean, but these are wandering fragments and jagged shards, not fully conceived ideas.

Ocean himself grimaces in a black do-rag and glacier-blue puffer jacket, hoodie up to hide his face, hunched forward as though the microphone offers an escape portal—which maybe it once did. The words tumble out disjointed, almost mumble rapped, but he has enough gravity for the crowd to hang on quietly, their attention only starting to fray.

The crowd roars at the first piano plinks of “Crack Rock.” The beat comes in hard, restoring equilibrium. The band alights in a faithful and loose jazz-funk groove. Ocean dips back in with a gorgeous tenor for a few bars, testing out the falsetto for only a split second before suddenly halting it to let the jam wander. When he reenters, the vocals are a second behind the instrumentation, but he still keeps it afloat. Yet there is an unmistakably somber, low-energy current. The mood more funeral than revival meeting.

Slouching solitary at the microphone, he belts “Bad Religion.” His voice finally sounds powerful and clear. It conjures the sensibility of an old MTV Unplugged, the arrangements stripped down to a single slow-moving piano and his voice, a tender, volatile instrument. He has the gift of the greats: the ability to not merely suspend time, but to warp it entirely. The evocative images in his songs are full of empty lacunae allowing listeners to project their own values, ideas, and memories onto him and the characters who inhabit them. When he’s at his best, that celestial wail transports you back to where you were when you first heard it, to the romantic partners that faded into a haze of sweat and pixels, to the friends who got stranded and never made it out to the other side.

For a minute, Ocean reaches the plateau. A reimagined “White Ferrari” replete with Moog synth bass sounds like a DFA track circa 2006, somewhere between dance punk and acid house. His voice gathers an increasing strength, and he finally seems to sing from the inside of his soul, levitating like his idol Prince, unleashing the wounded valentines that umbilically tether him to this assembled congregation. But things quickly unravel again. After the song ends, he jumps up and starts wandering around the stage, left hand clutching his head as if it were about to combust, and he lets loose a few odd, Nardwuar-like “doots.” He finally stops to thank the crowd, and they whoop in approval.

“Who’s on drugs tonight, who’s high right now?” Ocean asks, nervously pacing. “It’s been so long, everybody talks about how long it’s been, like it’s been so long, it’s been so long, but I have missed you.”

It’s here when he starts to explain the reason for this reemergence, what has already begun to feel like the last time anyone outside his immediate circle might see him again for years.

“It’s not because of a new album,” he says. The crowd groans. “Not that there’s not a new album.” The crowd ululates. Ocean shushes them into submission to tell a story about his brother, Ryan Breaux, who tragically died three years ago in a car accident in Thousand Oaks at just 18.

“Over these last couple years, my life changed so much. My brother and I came to this festival a lot. I feel like I was dragged out here half the time because I hated the dust. I always wound up with a respiratory infection. So I would, like, avoid coming,” he continues. “One of my fondest memories was watching Rae Sremmurd with my brother and Travis [“Taco” Bennett] dancing in that tent to their music. And I know he would’ve been so excited to be here with all of us. And I want to say thank you for the support, the ears, and the love.”

The grief-struck pathos of the moment gives way to an acoustic, intimate rendition of “Pink + White.” There is beauty but no liftoff. The nuclear voltage required to electrify 100,000 parishioners on this vast field cannot be summoned. After it ends, someone tells a friend that they’re “underwhelmed,” which in the hissing silence of the stunned crowd can be heard like a scream. Several half-hearted boos are audible.

Among Coachella headliners, little precedent for this exists. The closest analogue might be Drake’s tedious hot-air balloon fire of 2015, when he garnered headlines for bringing out Madonna and wiping off her impromptu kiss like a grammar school kid ambushed by his mee-maw. But that was a failure based on a lack of stylistic imagination and a critical misapprehension of what it takes to command the main stage. Commanding the main stage requires not only charisma and virtuosity, but also mesmerizing stage design and stereoscopic vision.

Ocean’s performance vaguely recalled Outkast’s Weekend 1 performance in 2014, when critics maligned Andre 3000’s obvious discomfort with pretending to be the shiny, happy, platinum-wigged eccentric of “Hey Ya!” But even then, there was a fidelity to the real Three Stacks that was misinterpreted by those who never understood ATLiens. In a sense, the mercurial, brilliant, and slightly contemptuous Andre was his truest form. And the set was much better than its reputation.

It’s difficult to avoid comparing Ocean to the weekend’s other marquee draws too. On Friday, Bad Bunny delivered the best headlining set since Beyoncé’s. The Puerto Rican reggaeton phenomenon intuitively understood the second-by-second requirements necessary to dominate a stage of such magnitude and tradition. As the first Spanish-language singer atop the Coachella bill, the 29-year-old son of a truck driver from a small town on the island’s north-central coast used it as an opportunity to educate a crowd that’s largely unfamiliar with this history on the last half century of Caribbean music, from Latin jazz and merengue to reggaeton’s roots in Panama.

If some found the history lesson slightly facile, it was impossible to argue with an artist introducing Tito Puente to Trevors in camp shirts with complicated patterns and “Demon Time” bucket hats. Bad Bunny towed out Daddy Yankee. He arranged for a brass band and salsa dance revue. His voice sounded great. He played banger after banger and refused to cater to the unseasoned expectations that plague algorithmic pop. It was so impressive that it overshadowed a bizarre cameo from a confused and malfunctioning Post Malone, who appeared onstage looking like Elmer Fudd if he knew what Worldstar was.

On Saturday night, Blackpink came as close as anyone will to answering the following question: What if the Spice Girls had been spawned in the mid-2010s by a vertically integrated consulting firm? There is something hypnotically transfixing about them, as if every visual, graphic, dance shimmy, and autocorrected note has been focus-grouped to ensure Maximum Fun. There is not a single original idea, but it is an immaculate synthesis. They can precisely match the sum of all previous human creativity but cannot provide a note more.

The vocals of each of their four singers alternately recall Beyoncé, Rihanna, Britney Spears, Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, and Mariah Carey. The manufactured “identify with your favorite member” approach traces back to the boy bands and girl groups of the late ’90s, Menudo, and the Monkees. Of course, they have their own reality show. The beats boast a familiar knock fusing classic Neptunes, Timbaland, and what I’m fairly certain is a shameless rip of “Whistle While You Twurk.” The aesthetic is fluorescent, antiseptic, and fanatically cute. The stage show includes butterflies made of drones in the sky. If you are not entertained, their fan base will track you down to the ends of the earth to convince you otherwise.

It is easy to cast Blackpink as merely the latest teen pop sensation, which, to be fair, is true. But in an age of rigorous analytics and unseen calculating formulas that feed on what is mostly highly packaged and processed, it’s hard not to see them as one of the first acts of a new era. This is as good as the AI will get, and that, in and of itself, is terrifying. Welcome to your glow stick eternity.

But in the present moment, Ocean still treads water. The performance seems like a partial rupture from the engaging phenom who stole Coachella in 2012 and the avant-garde D’Angelo heir seen at FYF in 2017. It’s crass to speculate on whether grief, the debilitating stress of celebrity, or mental health struggles contributed to this sensation of free fall. All that can be understood is an inescapable sense of anguish. When he addresses the crowd, there is genuine sincerity and authenticity—the desire to engage, but the inability to connect. The prevailing emotion of the set isn’t disappointment or resentment that this is some sort of scam, but rather an obliterating sadness that something sacred has fractured, becoming remote and only intermittently accessible.

He warbles a competent version of “Solo,” but the arrangement is so skeletal that it crumbles into pretty dust in the desert wind. From there, things rapidly degenerate. Without warning, the set spins out into a scattershot 12-minute mini-rave. A cool idea but poorly executed, without build, release, or coherence. A DJ named Crystalmess plays a Sango remix of “Chanel,” a Jersey club remix of “Lost” interpolated with an Underworld cut, a rework of “Slide” by someone named Trippy Turtle, and Ice Spice.

The cameras train in on a hired dancer who looks like a svelte Rick Ross and who’s twerking against a chain-link fence in a security guard outfit. Ocean clutches his robot-alien baby, Cody, which he took to the Met Gala in 2021. He consults with a sound person like it’s a dress rehearsal and not a performance for which he will reportedly pocket $4 million. Even he admits that “this is fucking chaotic.” The disarray continues after the rave suite with a steroidal blast of sub–Bad Brains hardcore. “Wise Man” roars with an aggressive and furious drum breakdown that sows total confusion among the crowd.

Somewhere in here, the myth is inadvertently punctured. Rather than let the audience interpret these wild left turns, he explains things with an unsparing literalism: “All I would say about that, it’s a rave mix and you came to see Frank Ocean, and it’s a little rave in the middle of the show.” At one point, he performs a cover of Willie Nelson’s “Night Life” with a child lip-synching and pretending to play a piano. On a chyron, the phrase “inner child” floats by. When the song ends, Ocean introduces the boy as Josiah, who is “here to play my inner child.” At its best, Ocean’s art split the difference between confessional revelation and Eleusinian mystery. This feels like an on-the-nose alphabet book primer.

It’s here when the mass exodus occurs. Hundreds of people around me stream toward the exits, wandering like they’re trapped in a disorienting labyrinth. I overhear someone tell their friend, “Tyler would’ve outdone him.” Someone else describes it as “traumatic.” “Disappointing.” “He’s so fucking horrible. This is why I came to Coachella.”

But this is all slightly hyperbolic. It’s reductive to describe it as a complete failure. There is something inherently compelling about watching a preternaturally talented artist struggle to stitch his vastly disparate ideas together. It may make for poor entertainment, but it’s fascinating as a document of unmet ambition. He appears trapped in something that we can’t understand, hounded by demons we can’t see. What most in the crowd are responding to is the death of something that Ocean cannot control. The outsized expectations that had made him infallible, a timeless avatar of their vanished youth, the dark reality that what comes unglued cannot always be repaired. For Frank Ocean to no longer be the same Frank Ocean who held them emotionally hostage for a decade meant that they would realize what Andre had told the previous generation: Heroes eventually die, horoscopes often lie.

Toward the end, Ocean plays “Nikes” and “Nights,” two immemorial classics from Blonde. But he doesn’t actually perform them, instead merely playing the studio versions and dancing onstage. With a beaming smile, he lip-synchs into the camera, makes rap hands, and appears genuinely happy and at ease for the first and only time in this 80-minute odyssey. None of it makes much sense.

Once again, the beat drops out. Ocean talks intently with his keyboardist for several moments as an image of a mushroom cloud billows on the screens. A bitter silence sweeps through the crowd, leading into Ocean’s cover of the Isley Brothers’ “(At Your Best) You Are Love,” a highlight from 2016’s Endless. No one knows it, including him, but this will be the finale. He’s already 15 minutes past curfew.

In this rendering of a biblical soul ballad, reduced to a weeping guitar and a bleeding piano, Ocean uses that empyrean falsetto, closes his eyes, and pours out every remaining ounce of painful honesty that he can physically summon. It is raw and frail, a wisp of a song that seems to float away from him—but he’s always desperately trying to catch up. Yet it captures the majesty and despair of our human mess, full of glorious errors, far more valuable than a perfect machine.

Jeff Weiss is the founder and editor of POW. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and GQ.


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