Wednesday, July 6th, 2011

Frank Ocean – Novacane

He didn’t really write a song for Bieber did he? Really? Really?


[Video][Website]
[7.50]

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.
[9]

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&B—sorry to call it that, Frank—has 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.
[9]

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.
[7]

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.
[7]

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.
[5]

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?
[8]

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.
[8]

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.
[9]

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.
[7]

Zach Lyon: This makes me want to go all Lex on everyone. It’s alright, but it doesn’t go anywhere, and it just putters off after clinging to its clever tricks for five minutes.
[4]

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.
[8]

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.
[9]

38 Responses to “Frank Ocean – Novacane”

  1. This would’ve definitely got a [9] for me.

  2. …from me, too.

  3. I assumed “brain like Berkeley” meant she gave good head

  4. It probably does! But I’m not just bullshitting either; in context with “I believe that marriage isn’t between a man & woman/ But between love and love” in the very next track on the record (and then “Bitches Talkin'” after that), they’re both legitimate interpretations. I love that one wouldn’t negate the other for him.

  5. Me too.

  6. Yeah, me too, but I like Dan’s interpretation.

  7. Perhaps I’m just dense, but I’m not sure what Dan’s interpretation of the “brain like Berkeley” line, which is clearly about good fellatio, is? That Ocean is eating her brains, zombie style?

  8. he could also actually be calling her smart! (tho my guess would also be that he’s talking about head) (i also don’t understand dan’s reading)

  9. the “smart” interpretation is somewhat undermined by the fact that it’s the one line that doesn’t recur on the second verse. of course that could be a symptom of him getting successively more fucked up but still

  10. “he could actually be calling her smart!”

    It’s sad that wasn’t my first, or fourteenth, thought.

  11. well if she really is studying to be a dentist, she must be pretty smart

  12. Hey, maybe he meant both! (Yeah, probably not. But it’s not like they’re mutually exclusive.)

  13. Also, it’s telling that this is the big conversation about Frank Ocean; I’m just not sure what it’s telling about.

  14. Zach Lyon OTM.

  15. I don’t understand what “going Lex” is in this context. Telling other people they’re uncool because they listen to the wrong records?

  16. Criticizing traditional R&B while unduly praising stuff like this, The Weeknd, etc, I’m pretty sure.

  17. Overlooking more than criticizing, I suppose. I typically don’t agree with the hardness of Lex’s R&B sermonizing, but this sounds just as hipsterbaity as The Weeknd, with all the right signifiers: manchildish drug narrative, romanticizing/exoticizing the magical down-on-her-luck Hottest Babe Of All Time (some derivation of the manic pixie dream girl?), obsession with style over all else, not very good singing.

    2011 seems to be the year of me not getting the hype. Hopefully this will end soon.

  18. Huh. I take no side in this particular debate, but one thing Frank/Weeknd have going for them is decent-to-good singing. Compare, say, the Weeknd’s “Trust Issues” to Drake’s — granted, that’s not saying much but still.

  19. Oh, I think Frank Ocean is better than Drake in every way. I don’t think he’s a bad singer, but I don’t think he’s a particularly good one: wispy, monotone, sounds noticeably autotuned at times. On “Novacane” at least he sounds to me like any rapper trying to get a crossover hit (with much less marketable lyrical content obv)

    I’ve only listened to The Weeknd maybe once and I’d prefer not to again, so what do I know.

  20. The manic pixie dream girl is a subset of Hottest Babe of All Time for omega males. :P

  21. Yes, because we’re always overlooking traditional R&B here on the Jukebox, and talking about indie hypes of the week. What hipsters we are.

  22. Comment directed at ~the masses~, not the Jukebox.

  23. “manchildish drug narrative, romanticizing/exoticizing the magical down-on-her-luck Hottest Babe Of All Time (some derivation of the manic pixie dream girl?), obsession with style over all else”

    While I think we can all agree that people who like Ocean and The Weeknd and don’t like mainstream R&B are complete fools, these topics (drug narrative, exoticizing the plight of women, style) are all well-worn lyrical territory in hip-hop. Is this story really that different what you’d get on a Def Jux or Rhymesayers release from 2005? That nasty hipster taste is just in the small details of his story. (As a side note, is it still hipsterbait if Ocean is a hipster himself and he’s just writing about the world he inhabits? Can hipsters keep it real?)

    Although, I totally agree that Ocean is not a very good singer. I think some critics are overly enamored with him not because of criticbaiting lyrical content, but because he’s The Guy From Odd Future Who Doesn’t Write Gruesome Rape Narratives. Maybe that’s why Dan & co. want so badly for “brain like Berkeley” to be about her intellect, not her oral sex skills. Just because Ocean doesn’t describe eating some dead girls’ intestines doesn’t mean he’s the third-wave feminist R&B hero you’ve been waiting for. Nor does it somehow magically negate the fact that Odd Future is disgustingly misogynist.

  24. “I think some critics are overly enamored with him not because of criticbaiting lyrical content, but because he’s The Guy From Odd Future Who Doesn’t Write Gruesome Rape Narratives.”

    This, except replace “critics” with “everyone,” with an added factor of “but he used to have a sorta-almost-career!” but not a huge added factor.

  25. Just because Ocean doesn’t describe eating some dead girls’ intestines doesn’t mean he’s the third-wave feminist R&B hero you’ve been waiting for.

    This is not a useful binary.

  26. The Weeknd record is soggy tripe, by the way.

  27. Michelle: I don’t disagree with anything you’re saying, but I don’t think much of it is really disagreeing with what I’m saying. Like, I’m not a huge fan of Def Jux either outside of a couple songs. And a guy being hipsterbait, in my view, is more on the baited hipsters than the guy himself — I don’t think he wrote this song in an attempt to sell himself to hipsters, but that selling point is a huge part of its success.

  28. Assuming, for a moment that all y’all’s careful audience analysis is correct, and Ocean is popular because of HIPSTERS.

    1. Why is that a bad thing?
    2. How many Marsha Ambrosius records does a hipster have to own before she’s allowed to like Frank Ocean?

  29. 1. hipsters ruin everything!
    2. well there’s only 1, so at least that many.

  30. Oh, good, so they don’t need to own any Floetry shit. Nice to know.

    Dude, get your rockism out of my R&B.

  31. I hope you understand that I’m being at least a little bit facetious (and I always assume Kate Beaton quotes are more popular than they are) and I don’t even consider my [4] to be that negative. It’s a decent song. And I don’t typically agree with Lex. But I understand how easy it is for him to get annoyed when these kinds of performers become critical darlings; the subtext is that it’s always happening in in spite of more traditional, mainstream R&B. ie it has the critics — and the “hipsters,” by which I really just mean music nerds on the internet and at OF shows — thinking this is the real R&B, not like that shit you hear on the radio. I get just as annoyed when people complain about all mainstream rap being about X and X and X, while real rap is supposed to be about X and X (don’t know if I’ve seen a single rap-themed room on turntable that doesn’t have “REAL” somewhere in the name). In a lot of cases with Frank Ocean/Weeknd, it isn’t a subtext, and fans (like Sean Fennessey, as Lex points out) will straight up dismiss more traditional fare that they have in all likelihood never tried to engage with in the first place.

  32. But I understand how easy it is for him to get annoyed when these kinds of performers become critical darlings; the subtext is that it’s always happening in in spite of more traditional, mainstream R&B. ie it has the critics — and the “hipsters,” by which I really just mean music nerds on the internet and at OF shows — thinking this is the real R&B, not like that shit you hear on the radio.

    but why are you raising these questions on a board whose members adore traditional mainstream R&B?

  33. 1. I don’t necessarily write my reviews in direct address to the other writers of the Jukebox, 2. J Bradley is bringing up an opposing view and I’m explaining my stance, 3. It’s impossible to divorce my feelings on Frank Ocean, The Meme from my feelings about the song. Surely I’m not the first Jukebox writer to throw in a related thought about a song that isn’t a direct critique of the song itself but a discussion of the song in a wider context. But that’s the point being argued.

  34. Don’t think “traditional” is the word you all are looking for. Can’t think of any time in its history that R&B hasn’t thought of itself as a modern music. Lex doesn’t use the word “traditional,” but does say “formalist roots,” which is almost as problematic. Also, listening to old R&B is still on Lex’s to-do list, as far as I can tell.

    (On the other hand, I don’t necessarily think that R&B feels that to be modern it has to disconnect from the past. But the word “tradition” needs to mean something stronger than “done before, sort of.” E.g., when Destiny’s Child did “Jumpin Jumpin,” there was a self-conscious evocation of Louis Jordan (or there might have been; anyway, Jordan was evoked in me) for the 5 percent of their audience who would’ve identified Louis Jordan. But this was in the context of Destiny’s Child fucking with form anytime they could. Think that the revival and continuation of the term “R&B” has to do with differentiating from various post-disco dance movements and also needing a word for something that includes singing and isn’t quite coming – or only coming – from hip-hop. Of course, post-disco dance music is exactly what R&B is crashing into right now.)

    I’d say that the real question, for Lex or whomever, also for me if I end up agreeing with him, is why “hipster”* or indie can’t be an interesting direction for at least some R&B, since I don’t see any principle that says that it can’t. If good music resulted from the 4 Tops and the Temptations and Miles and Sly heading in such directions back in the ’60s, what’s going wrong now? (And yes, I’ve been asking equivalent questions for the last 30 years, but that doesn’t mean I’ve got a good answer.)

    *A word that hasn’t been hip since ’64, if it even was then.

  35. Thank you. The word “traditional” is being thrown around really poorly here. We’re not contrasting Frank Ocean to Ray Charles!

  36. “Traditional” was my adjective originally, and I admit it’s a terrible one. I couldn’t think of what else to say there.

    “Hipster” might not be such a bad adjective after all, in fact. It’s an audience thing. A lot of people like the Weeknd et al. because they see them as better than R&B made for R&B fans. I’ve had the misfortune of dealing with a few myself; if you’d like this experience, a good place to start is the comments section of Lex’s article. Probably a different subset of people there, but you’ll get the idea.

  37. Empirical on the street data report: I heard this coming out of a car on the avenue this weekend (!!!), so I can assure you that the audience for this isn’t solely made up of white hipster kids. In fact, I’d argue that at least a few “traditional” R&B fans are listening, and like it enough to drive around with it blasting their stereos on a hot summer day. (BTW, I heard Drake at least 5 times, too — so take with a grain of salt? Or not.)

  38. Yeah, Frank Ocean is right there on the border thanks to Odd Future (maybe thanks to his old deal, but that’d be a stuffed-down background factor), so he’s in a weird position. IIRC, “Novacane” is even charting some places.