April 14, 2024

Sunday night’s Coachella-headlining performance by the enigmatic R&B star Frank Ocean was unquestionably the most highly-anticipated set of the festival. The singer, who had not performed live in nearly six years, was set to headline the fest in 2020 before the pandemic hit, and then again last year before he postponed it to 2023.

Rumors swirled beforehand about the likelihood of new music (Ocean hasn’t released an album since 2016’s “Blonde”), the potential for a reunion with his Odd Future bandmates, and the odds of a performance as moving and revelatory as the last time Ocean played Southern California, at a near-universally lauded headlining set at the now defunct FYF Festival during his brief tour in the summer of 2017.

None of this came to pass. In fact, Ocean’s set — during which he and his musicians were intentionally obscured by a cadre of people walking in a circle around them, only seen on video projected on custom screens even more massive than those that usually flank Coachella’s main stage — was messy, loose, and a near-disaster that will likely go down as one of the most divisive in Coachella history, with flashes of brilliance that only made for a frustrating final outcome: that of disappointment and palpable audience WTF-ness. (Unlike nearly every other set at the festival, Ocean’s, and that of Bjork, who preceded him on the main stage, were not livestreamed — a fact that did not become clear until Sunday evening, leading to outrage and anguish online; reps for YouTube, Coachella and the two artists did not immediately respond to Variety‘s requests for comment.)

Problems were apparent from the jump: the set started a full 57 minutes after its advertised start time, eating into a hard curfew for the venue, and the first five minutes were comprised of people walking silently in a circle, leading some to wonder whether Ocean was going to appear at all. When he finally did, leading his band through “Novacane,” he sounded great, his voice rising over a re-worked groove of the song, but he was barely to be seen on the giant video screens (and impossible to see behind the wall of walking people in person). This scavenger hunt for the headliner would continue throughout the set, even after the wall of people left: Ocean and his band were too far back on the stage, too obscured by the screens — there was just a small opening for the actual stage — and too poorly lit from the lack of stagelights for anyone but the most perfectly placed audience members to get more than just a cursory glance of any of the musicians, let alone Ocean himself.

Pauses — long, pregnant, “what are we doing next?” pauses — came frequently between songs, and it looked as if the setlist was mostly a series of onstage audibles. That’s fine if there’s intent behind it, but instead he commiserated with his band, his techs, and himself before those occasional flashes of greatness: an acoustic “Pink & White” that meandered in a 3/4 shuffle with lovely finesse; a punky blast through “Wise Man” that made it seem that Ocean had discovered — and then digested — years of hardcore punk bootlegs during the pandemic. And when Ocean finally acknowledged the audience on the mic, he first dispelled the rumors of the imminent release of new music before telling the audience that he used to go to Coachella with his brother Ryan (although he did not mention his brother’s tragic death in 2020). “I know he would have been so excited to be here with us.”

And for every possible course correction, the house came crashing down. A DJ started playing in the middle of the set with no introduction or context, leading many to think the show was over; only after 15 minutes of dancey end-of-night beats did Ocean introduce DJ Crystal Mess, who was teasing Ocean’s radio show…or something?

If the pared-back stage set was a reaction to the choreographed nature of Coachella largess from acts like Beyonce and Blackpink, why have Ocean and his band completely obscured from the audience rather than laid bare onstage, an acknowledgement of the rawness of his music? Why land crazily on the nose by having an actual child “sing” a song about your inner child? Why lip-synch to tracks of the only two songs played in their original arrangement if you’ve got a full band? Why start so late you’re cut off from curfew in a way that makes it appear like you live in a world in which time does not exist? Perhaps some understood the throughlines, but for a festival audience not necessarily composed of die-hards, it felt like pure chaos.

In 2016, Ocean livestreamed (and eventually released) an album comprised of desultory jams and instrumentals called “Endless,” accompanied by a video of himself apparently building a staircase out of blocks. On the following day, he dropped his masterpiece, “Blonde.” Was Sunday night’s performance another elaborate head fake, and he’ll play a real set during Coachella’s Weekend Two? Time will tell.

Ocean is beloved partially because of his unpredictable nature, and surely his most devoted fans will claim pure artistry as an excuse. That’s fine: Ocean should have the freedom to explore his creativity however he wants. That said, when it’s in front of 100,000 people who have been clamoring to see you for years, having a plan is more than helpful: it’s necessary. Hopefully, by next weekend, Ocean will actually have one. 

Additional reporting by Jem Aswad.