Monday, December 10th, 2012

AMNESTY 2012: Frank Ocean – Thinkin Bout You

AMNESTY FORTNIGHT STARTS NOW! With the song that’s going to be on every single goddamn year-ender, so might as well get to it at least a LITTLE early!


Brad Shoup: In September, MTV’s headline bots touted Ocean’s “stripped-down” performance of “Thinkin Bout You” on the VMAs — an odd phrase, as channel ORANGE‘s version was already nervously bopping in its skivvies. Ocean’s a man of the moment, a prince of a world where songs aren’t completed works but nodes on a SoundCloud nexus. There’s no need to finish, not when your listeners are willing to do the work. Let us kill the industry; watch us dam up every revenue stream, leak everything even as it’s composed; still, we will find idols. The song’s narrator is a post-coital Tumblr feed, cadging attention with lame puns and deathless references, working himself into a froth keeping the hearts red. As many iterations as have been aired in public, this most official release still smacks of first-thought-best-thought. The lyrical links are offhanded and tenuous, which means one thing for our lover and quite another for our artist. Or does it? One certainly wouldn’t be alone coloring in an Ocean from the earnest sketch here. But how to paint over the preset synth meows and flat, Cody ChesnuTT-style line echoes? Do we draw from the bridge, which terminates in gorgeous control and melodicism? (As opposed to the song itself, which just terminates.) Or do we already carry enough hues in our heads?

Michelle Myers: First there is a facade. Frank Ocean cannot admit to crying without first making a joke about the weather. When he asks “do you think about me still?” it is a seemingly innocent question that barely conceals a storm of emotions. He sings these lines in that flat, disaffected tone that makes so much of his generally well-written music so tedious to me, but here it works. He sounds like a guy trying and almost succeeding at hiding his feelings. But he can’t keep it together. His falsetto breaks through like a sobbing fit that cannot be contained. “I’ve been thinkin’ ’bout forever,” he admits. He retreats into deflective humor; “I just thought you were cute enough to kick it,” comes off like an insincere neg. There is something shameful about the intensity of his feelings. He is reluctant. “Yes, of course, I remember — how could I forget? — how you feel,” is possibly the best-written lyric of the whole year: stammering, throat-clearing diction, followed by visceral, sentimental, erotic nostalgia.

Iain Mew: Sometimes the conversations that turn out to be life-changing don’t get that dramatic a setup. I love the way that “Thinkin Bout You” sounds so small and has the awkward structure of an unprepared conversation, and how Ocean uses the breaks into falsetto like waves of significance striking him by surprise.

Patrick St. Michel: “Pyramids,” the first song to officially emerge from Frank Ocean’s channel ORANGE, traveled through time, starting off in ancient Egypt before zipping ahead to some sad city where Cleopatra had been reincarnated as a dancer in some sordid club. “Thinkin Bout You” is similarly obsessed with time, but not in the ambitious, flying-through-a-wormhole way of “Pyramids.” Ocean has been thinking about forever because he has the time to — when you find yourself with spare time and no plans, sprawled out in your bedroom, what else are you going to dwell on? As synths drift in the background like wisps of smoke, Ocean fills the time by making up wisecracks about seaside real estate in landlocked places and thinking about someone important. It’s harmless until he starts thinking about what the object of his affection is imagining — or, more painfully, not focusing on. Then Ocean gets a touch sweeter when he switches to thoughts of the past, sounding both tickled by these aged memories but also a little crestfallen at how they’ve passed. And that just brings him back to where he started. This is mundane daydreaming rendered into gorgeous HD.

Edward Okulicz: The first few times, I thought the falsetto chorus was a bit of a stretch — not a technical one, but an emotional one — but I was wrong. It’s perfect and fitting for the story being told. The verses show Ocean initially laid-back and conversational, as if making light of the situation he and his lover find themselves in. The facade is short-lived, as the pre-chorus hook confesses part of the extent of his feelings, before the chorus brings in the anxiety and fear of someone who’s exposed their emotions just a little too much to be comfortable. The best part, though, is that gorgeous middle eight. “You were my first time,” Ocean admits, and while you could link the song to that Tumblr post and hear it as even more devastating and raw, “Thinkin Bout You” is involving without the need for speculative bio-digging.

Katherine St Asaph: Context changes everything. Imagine how the exact same songwriting would’ve been received had Ocean’s “Thinkin’ About You” demo never leaked and if the track were released by its intended recipient, Roc Nation also-ran Bridget Kelly. You’d be lucky if most critics even heard it, let alone allowed it ambivalence or craft. (Beyoncé, being Beyoncé, is the exception, but I’ve seen few reassessments of, say, “Quickly.”) But no, it’s a Frank Ocean track on the Big Important Frank Ocean Album, and thus subject to endless breathless praise. Thing’s solid; check the Wizard of Oz bookends, or how the seemingly resigned “do you think about me still?” turns so deftly into “…or do you not think so far ahead?” It may or may not be personal, though to know for sure you either need to know Ocean, mire yourself in theory or, more likely, employ the same thought process as people who talk about hidden Bible codes. (Though, in retrospect, it’s stunning nobody latched onto “but boy, they pour when I’m thinking of you”; blame blogger laziness and/or lyrics sites, I guess. I missed it too.) It’s good enough to lead off channel ORANGE, at least — but like that album, it rarely transcends the first draft. The verses are only mildly cleaned up from the guide vocals, the fighter jet line trails off to nowhere, the bridge fumbles, and Ocean’s falsetto, as usual, could still use an extra year or take or two. That said, are your first drafts this affecting?

Jonathan Bogart: The mp3 he put up on his Tumblr a year and a half ago was #70 on my 2011 list. The eventual channel ORANGE release is slightly worse, perhaps only because it’s now mastered well enough that its spareness is dry and antiseptic instead of muffled and bled-through. The point, of course, is the performance, and that aching falsetto, which expresses mastery in so many other R&B singers, expresses such vulnerability here that it sometimes seems like most of a generation has a crush on him.

Alfred Soto: Good intentions – heartening chapter in his biography, infatuation with the right R&B totems – coalesce in one of the two or three best songs from an otherwise well-intentioned but muddled debut. The wet falsetto in the chorus that signifies his torment complements the earnestness of the talk-sung verses. A skeptic by nature, a romantic by accident.

Will Adams: It’s shocking how lazy he is in his lower register, dropping notes as soon as he arrives on them. Pair that with the minimal production, and it’s even more apparent.

Sabina Tang: Frank Ocean isn’t a sledgehammer fireworks sort of guy, but even knowing this, I wonder at the fact that none of his tracks compel me on initial listen. If and when they sink in, they do so with subtlety, in lyrics-led fashion. “Thinking Bout You”‘s verses are reminiscent of “American Wedding,” wherein The Eagles(!) provided dynamic movement while Frank’s introspective mid-range ambled in place; here it’s metre itself that carries the line forward into the falsetto chorus, which hangs blissfully in some dark, starry space. No sense of urgency, but that seems to be the point. This is merely the record of a mental pause, a still point of awareness.

Zach Lyon: It took me a while to look at this as an actual song rather than, say, a sampling; it can be hard with songs that sound so minimal they may as well be empty and performances that sound so impressive they may as well be auditions. But there was never a droplet of doubt with that falsetto, and it’s difficult to resist the cleverness of his verses, and I will never be cynical enough to not fawn over the alternating of those modes. That’s the hook, and he’s a great salesman; it’s rare that a performer actually convinces me that I’m listening to the most important document of their life thus far. The words don’t do it alone, but his voice does. For the record, my score is cutting the difference between an [8] for the studio recording and a [10] for his SNL performance, because 1.) SNL! Of all places! and 2.) I don’t believe it will ever be possible to separate “Thinkin Bout You” from biography, even if it doesn’t belong there. That’s an essay for another time (and it doesn’t have a positive bent) but for me, the live performance is as much the song itself as the recording on channel ORANGE.

Anthony Easton: Frank Ocean’s falsetto is one of pop’s great pleasures, as is his slow, small attention to heartbreaking details. I was going to say “a little like a queer R. Kelly,” but the amusing thing is that despite his coming out, Ocean’s commitment to historically minded, traditional R&B and his attachment to reclaiming its sentimentality might make him less queer than Kelly’s excesses. Him being so square, so unironic, and attaching himself to the hip irony of Tyler, the Creator extends the rabbit hole even deeper. But aside from all the politics and all the meta-text, this gets a [10] for being so fucking gorgeous, so sublimely beautiful for beauty’s sake.

Jer Fairall: Revolutionary for Ocean’s eventual queering of his own text, of course, but the formal innovation here lies in his ability to make the tongue-tied speech of insecure crushes and awkward first loves scan as poetry, how “I don’t love you I just thought you were cute that’s why I kissed you” plays not a suave come-on but rather the kind of verbal splay typically delivered while one stares nervously at their own hands rather than at the person in front of them. This is what “Call Me Maybe” sounds like after time and experience have rendered it wistful, what “Somebody That I Used To Know” would have sounded like if written by someone with an actual vocabulary; the true great love song of 2012.

10 Responses to “AMNESTY 2012: Frank Ocean – Thinkin Bout You”

  1. But no one actually counted the trochees or anapaests or whatever!

  2. I’m rapidly becoming That Person as poll time hits but “Fertilizer” is still my favorite song on the album. I wish it were twice as long as “Pyramids”.

  3. Whoopsy-daisy!

  4. AE: There’s little point in saying you were going to generalise Ocean as the queer Kellz, only to brush that thought off and reward yourself on having not voiced said generalisation. Also, Kellz is way way more of a traditionalist than Ocean has ever really shown us.

    PS – apart from the lovely opening strings, I prefer the demo? :s

  5. Sad I couldn’t get in on this, but I listened to this one about twenty times and just had zero reaction, and I didn’t want to drag down the expectedly high quality writing everyone else was going to do about it. Couldn’t even decide what score I’d give it; still don’t know.

  6. I probably should have exercised the same restraint.

  7. not at all! consensus is boring.

  8. Nah, Will. If I’d written I probably would have been around the [5] range too, I was just exhausted and couldn’t get words to come out.

  9. so i might not have made this clear, but i should clarify. One of the best things about Frank Ocean is how traditional a R and B performer he is, and how he uses the musical forms of R and B not as a subversive excess of strangeness like R. Kelly (see Sex Planet, Zoo) but as a comforting, gorgeous, open generosity.

    In this sense, his avowed queerness does not bring a frisson of otherness to this traditionalism.

    One of the ways I use the Jukebox is to engage in a set of conversations, and to try out ideas–ask questions, some rhetorical, some not. I am not expecting rewards, I am trying in an exploratory position, to sort out exactly why I love the Ocean as much as I do.

    I am curious about why you don’t think that Ocean works with traditional R and B though?

  10. Brad: Fertilizer – James Fauntleroy II

    I’d be curious about your opinion too.