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Live Review: Frank Ocean, November 15, 2011, El Rey Theatre – Los Angeles, California

Frank Ocean is something of an enigma. He’s known as the singing member of Odd Future, and as such doesn’t quite fit into the collective from an outsider’s perspective. He doesn’t regularly tour with them so hasn’t had the opportunity to get as much exposure as some of them by that means, but on the other hand he has featured on this year’s biggest hip-hop release (if not biggest outright release) Watch The Throne. Both this, and the fact that his music is far more radio-friendly than the rest of his posse means that he has built a fanbase that is separate from that of Odd Future. But, despite his growth in popularity, his live abilities are still relatively untested. Merchandise for his 2011 tour, on sale at this event, showed a disparate 5 events at various places around the world. This was the final of that quintet, and the homecoming show of the tour. The atmosphere was patient and full of anticipation as there seemed to be an equal mix of hardcore fans and those mildly related with the young singer who had talked their way in, while the rest of Odd Future could be seen up in the balcony at the back.

Ocean took to the stage twenty minutes late, but nobody seemed to notice as his charm was evident from the start. Dressed in a full suit it seemed Ocean was emulating some of his crooner heroes, although he also donned a headband with it, to bring his own character to the style. Ocean dropped the majority of his most popular songs, including “Thinking About You” and “Novacane” early in the set, which certainly got the crowd interested, but this eagerness to please may have cost the show later on when it had slowed down a little and could have used another pickup. Ocean sang only to a backing track, his sole other onstage accompaniment was a random assortment of video clips that at times worked with the songs and at times didn’t. An action-packed anime clip backing a slow love song seemed particularly misjudged.

Due to this minimal setup, it almost seemed at times as if this were more of a preview of Frank Ocean, an opportunity to show us the basics of what he’s capable of, and keep us interested to see what he can do in the future. This “taster” style was never more apparent than when he performed the hooks of his two Watch The Throne song, “No Church in the Wild” and “Made In America,” back to back, with neither of which lasting more than a minute since the main attractions of those songs were not in attendance. Thankfully to directly follow this up he played another of his features, “She” from Tyler, The Creator’s Goblin, and this time the main man came out from side stage to wild screaming from many of the fans. The sheer exuberance of Tyler made this the undoubted high-point in energy of the night.

The Tyler collaboration aside, the night was more or less a one-tone affair with Ocean reproducing his hits for his fans and trying to remain engaging by bending down to sing to those right at the front (although his biggest fan, Hodgy Beats who mouthed along every word, was stuck in the back). The end of the night brought us two different images of Ocean that nicely depicted the crossroads he’s at currently. Upon coming towards the end of his “Hotel California”-sampling “American Wedding,” Ocean was handed a Rock Band-guitar and he turned to play the song’s solo along to the game which was projected on the screen behind him, reminding us that he is, after all, still a young guy who just wants to have fun. On the other hand, for his encore we saw the first live instrumentation of the evening as Ocean played piano along while singing, giving us a glimpse into the full-blooded crooner he could turn out to be. So, while the performance was not necessarily the most exciting, it felt like one of those that those in attendance may be able to look back at in the future and say “I saw him when…”

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