He didn’t really write a song for Bieber did he? Really? Really?
Anthony Easton: Woozy and sweet, a little lonely, and there is a domestic failure in how he yearns through the fuck fuck fuck…I like the waking up after an evening out, and the meta-ethics of pleasure worked out by libertines.
Dan Weiss: His affect is so soft that I groused at first. “Novacane, novacane, novacane/Numb the pain, numb the pain, numb the pain” – so what? Then I noticed the pill popping (Viagra), the cocaine for breakfast (“yikes”), the ice blue bong on the lawn at Coachella (“whatever”), and those are just the known stuff. “What are we smoking anyway?” Ocean worries. “Don’t let the high go to waste,” she snaps. The she is a would-be dentist slumming in porn (“At least she workin'” is the best of Ocean’s many smart and compassionate asides). R&Bsorry to call it that, Frankhas rarely approached such scripted dialogue and cinematic color outside of novelties, like R. Kelly’s “Trapped in the Closet” mini-dramas or, I don’t know, “Thriller.” When Ocean follows up “stripper booty and a rack like wow” with “brain like Berkeley,” the music stops. As in did you just say that. As in genuine shock. And this guy’s in Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All.
Michelle Myers: It tries sordid R&B about cocaine and heartbreak, but it lacks the drama and expressiveness that makes R&B slow jams so good to begin with. Still, I’m drawn in by Ocean’s lyrics; he’s a good storyteller and he keeps my attention even when the music is a little boring.
Hazel Robinson: For the first minute or so I thought “the problem with Odd Future is that I had some stoner friends when I was a teenager and they thought being a troll was hilarious too but I’m not friends with them now because they’re boring” but this gets way better than his last, MGMT-sampling single. It’s not a pinnacle of metaphor but there’s some pretty great crooning here.
Michaelangelo Matos: The ambient impression I had of this guy was that he was some kind of free radical, or maybe I’m mistaking him for one of his 720 crewmates. At any rate, I wasn’t prepared for him to sound like such a putz. This must be what my friends who hated the Neptunes circa ’02 were thinking it was going to become.
Ian Mathers: The great and frustrating thing about “Novocane” is that, no matter how many times Ocean talks about numbing the pain, he never actually talks about the pain. There’s a gap at the middle of the song, somewhere in the loop of not feeling anything and taking things to make sure that you don’t feel anything. You can think he’s a spoiled First World brat or a pitiable figure in the middle of an existential breakdown, but by describing the hollowness/hangover/paranoia rather than the problem, “Novacane” becomes unsettlingly weightless. Facts on the ground are thin; he doesn’t know what he’s taken, he can’t feel his face, he doesn’t know what the problem is. Who does?
Katherine St Asaph: The only drug I use regularly is Motrin PM, to sleep. None of these sex-and-tripods goings-on go on here. But I understand “Novacane.” The only time Ocean sounds animated is during the backstory, and other than fleeting change-ups, the track goes nowhere, suffocating in its five-ish notes. It’s a fetid conflation of withdrawal, heartbreak and depression, to the point where you don’t know which causes what. The half-deflated harmonies could almost be called beautiful if you forgot where they came from, and the half-spoken syllables could be words and sentences if you thought Ocean even half-knew what he was saying. It’s seductively pleasant to listen to, but it’s also the saddest song I’ve heard this year, and I never want to hear it again.
Edward Okulicz: Ocean tries to paint himself as both the ruiner and the ruined, which is a tough trick to pull off, but if there’s been a better vocal impression of numbness, I haven’t heard it this year. There are ominous clouds and beats which are pulses behind the pain, which give it a cinematic quality, and the lyrics are like a detached exposition. There’s the odd clunker — I cringed at the Eyes Wide Shut reference, but his little asides — “at least she working” — add colour to the vignettes. It sounds like a brilliant and meticulously-constructed piece of craft even as it simultaneously sounds stream-of-consciousness. I’m an Odd Future sceptic, but with or without that context, “Novacane” is a harrowing but haunting track that gets a lot of things right that it’s easy to get spectacularly wrong.
Michaela Drapes: You can’t help but feel for Frank Ocean; he seems so out of his depth in this melancholy love story. He just wants to, you know, connect with something real in a field in the California desert but you already know that it’s not going to end well when he’s at there for the mainstream hip-hop, and she’s there for what goes on in the dance tents. Oh Frank, you should know there’s no happy endings to be found at a Coachella afterparties.
Alfred Soto: A spare, slivery track in which admissions of swinish behavior and professions of love intermingle, uneasily. Thanks to the swelling synth patterns out of nineties R&B and false endings, it’s hard to know who’d doing what to whom, or even when metaphor ends and referents begin, which, thanks to Ocean’s haunted vocal, might be the point.
Jonathan Bradley: This love story starts at Coachella: he went to see Jigga, she went to see Z-Trip. (The appended “Perfect” is one of two great ad-libs Frank Ocean interjects into this tune; the other is the Warner Brothers-esque “Yikes” that follows “Cocaine for breakfast.”) From there Ocean drifts off into a haze of narrated drug use and musical anesthesia, transforming the precise details of the opening into a dragged out stretch of numbed hypnogogia. The intention is to mimic the melancholic state of a decaying relationship, but, really, it succeeds for a much simpler reason: the whirring, vaguely ’90s-style beat keeping time throughout the tune. It’s enough of a hook that Ocean has room to stretch out his songwriting nous and limited but creamy vocal. The sound is something different for R&B as well: not for its supposed “indie” outlook, but for its suburban aesthetic, and the way it avoids setting youth and maturity at odds. The result is beautiful, and proof that this shit doesn’t have to be grown to be sexy.