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Frank Ocean’s live set will make you really, really sad

Frank Ocean at FYF Fest 2017
Photograph: Rozette Rago

There were some oohs and ahh when Brad Pitt popped up, mid-set at Frank Ocean’s performance at FYF Fest on Saturday. Mostly though, the reaction to that surprise, and the set as a whole, was stunned silence.

Playing stripped down version of songs from Blonde and Endless along with covers, new singles (and new verses) and even a Channel Orange throwback, Ocean’s set was painfully direct and stark in its delivery. Tonally, the music was closest to Endless’s fluttering minimalism, calling to mind that music video’s image of a craftsman alone in his workshop. Spike Jonze’s cameras, aimed at Ocean from multiple angles delivered the intimacy that’s become Ocean’s trademark: a huge (and hugely popular) production that felt like a late-night phone call.

The set was startling for its somber tone: I can’t recall any performance I’ve seen with more audience members straight up bawling in the crowd. And keep in mind, a lot of people waited a long time for this set. Ocean canceled his headlining FYF appearance in 2015, leaving folks hanging only a few days before the show. Earlier this year he pulled out of Sasquatch, Hangout and Primavera.

Accordingly, demand for Saturday was high. It was the only day to sell out, and before gates opened one-day passes (normally ~$125) were going for more than three-day wrist bands (upwards of $300). Since releasing his eagerly anticipated new album last summer, FYF was only his fourth show. Panorama this weekend will be his fifth.

At FYF Fest, Ocean's performance was preceded by a warm, masterful soul set by Erykah Badu and followed by the joyful Afrobeat of Seun Kuti. Those did little to dull the gut punch of Ocean’s grim soliloquies. Even Brad Pitt’s unexpected tableau—in which the actor sat on the edge of the stage and talked into a cell phone as Ocean covered Stevie Wonder/Carpenters song “Close To You””—did little to distract from the overwhelming sense of grief. Songs like “Self Control” and “Ivy” (“I thought that I was dreaming / When you said you loved me”), basically eulogies for lost youth and failed love, hit hard, with Ocean’s voice was front and center. Even “Thinking Bout You” got a slowed down, pained reading. The lone upbeat number—a cover of Steve Monite's ‘80s boogie tune “Only You”—was a welcome interpolation, but, in the context, was a nonstarter. Who wants to dance at a party like this?

In short, if you’re hoping for anything less than a totally heartrending experience, brace yourself. Want some musical uplift at Panorama this weekend? You might be better served by Tame Impala’s Saturday slot, or soaking in the inevitable good vibes of Solange and calling it a night. Otherwise, leave your dancing shoes at home and come ready to get in your feelings.

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