Live review: Frank Ocean at Bowery Ballroom

Frank Ocean

Frank Ocean Photograph: Julian Berman

Making his NYC headlining debut at Bowery Ballroom last night, Frank Ocean reveled in the perks of his new fame. During "American Wedding," his recasting of "Hotel California," he donned a plastic ax, turned toward the projection screen behind him and played the song's solo via Guitar Hero; after singing his masterful hit single "Novacane," he stuck out his arms, twirled and did his best airplane imitation. Both times, he reminded the crowd that any of his whims were fair game. "I can do that too in concert," he said after he was done spinning. "I can do whatever the fuck I wanna do!"

Given the kind of year Ocean is having, he's probably right. In February, the Odd Future--affiliated singer (who turned 24 in October) issued Nostalgia, Ultra, a remarkably assured debut full-length that bounces from impish ("Songs for Women") to debauched ("Novacane") to downright heartbreaking ("There Will Be Tears"). Ocean proceeded to guest-star on the year's two buzziest hip-hop records: Tyler, the Creator's Goblin and Jay-Z and Kanye's Watch the Throne. Ocean was right when he alluded to the blank check he's toting around; he is officially in the midst of a Moment.

Guitar Hero interlude aside, there was nothing very flashy about last night's show (a makeup of a canceled date earlier in the month and a warm-up for another Bowery gig tonight). As with the handful of other solo gigs he's done over the past few weeks, the L.A.-based artist was alone onstage the entire time. Backing tracks were piped in over the PA, and each song featured its own custom video accompaniment (among the familiar flicks excerpted were Boyz n da Hood, Coming to America, The Hudsucker Proxy and, yes, The NeverEnding Story).

Ocean, clad in a stylish black suit and a Karate Kid--style headband, didn't go out of his way to offset the spareness of the presentation. He often sang with eyes closed and hand in pocket; occasionally he mimed lyrics, pointed out crowd members or dispensed front-row hand slaps, but mostly he seemed lost in song. If Ocean's banter, including a standard-issue "I Love New York" digression, came off as stiff, his vocal performance soared. The soul-baring ache that makes Nostalgia, Ultra so involving was fully on display.

The set list was a true grab bag, surprising for an artist who has only one LP to his name. Ocean actually seemed least engaged during the Nostalgia hits ("Novacane," "Songs for Women" and "Swim Good," the latter of which received a mellower, less potent treatment than the album version); he dug deeper for the new material—most memorably a dark, rueful tune that he introduced as "Super Rich Kids"—and during a brief mini medley of his Watch the Throne hooks, a reminder of how central his cameos are to the mood of that blockbuster record. Another highlight was "Acura Integurl," one of Ocean's typically cryptic emo-R&B tearjerkers, during which the video screen played a gorgeous montage of twilight highway driving—like a car ad directed by Michael Mann.

As impressive as the projections were, sometimes they felt stifling (did we really need to see a joint being passed around at a vintage music fest during "Novacane"?), and it was a relief when Ocean emerged onto a stark black stage for the encore. Seated at an electric piano, he performed "I Miss You," a song he wrote for Beyonc's latest, 4; with the help of an adoring female fan in the balcony, who loudly and repeatedly professed her love, Ocean attained a sense of intimacy he'd been skirting all night.

All in all, the show was a modest statement. For Ocean, "whatever the fuck [he] wants" mostly signifies a meditative mood, a surreal headspace where R&B meets sci-fi-ish psychedelia. He may be a hit maker, but he's no party starter; instead of capitalizing on Ocean's buzz, Sunday's concert seemed designed to temper it, humanize it. As counterintuitive as that seems, the young artist deserves credit for having the good sense to take it slow.