Joe Stile | BASSic
For Ocean, to withhold is to reveal
Published: Tuesday, September 25, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, September 25, 2012 01:09
Frank Ocean sets himself apart from his R&B contemporaries by adding small surrealist touches to his songs. This is particularly true for his currently popular single, “Thinkin Bout You.”
In the song, Ocean endlessly repeats how he’s been “thinking ’bout forever.” At first, this seems strange and ridiculous. “Forever” isn’t an actual frame of time that can be thought of on the same terms as “yesterday” or “tomorrow.” But that’s not exactly how Ocean means it.
To think about “forever” means to think about the micro-moments that define a shared life with someone. It’s to think the split-second thoughts of being married to them, of having a family, of growing old with them. A lot of the heartbreak felt in the song comes from the fact that the relationship Ocean believes will last for eternity has clearly been over for a long time. Ocean, however, seems to be the only person who can’t see that yet.
Interestingly, the track also makes the word “forever” practically interchangeable with the word “you.” Some of the time Ocean sings that he is thinking about “forever” but other times he says “you.” This word choice explores Ocean’s belief that his life is predicated on this love, and it makes his hopeless situation feel even more tragic. For Ocean, this isn’t just the end of a relationship — it is the end of Ocean’s whole world.
Part of the allure of the song is that, despite the clarity of the heartrending emotions, the lyrics’ meanings remain extremely opaque. Even the first line of the song, which references a tornado that has ruined Ocean’s room, is hard to accurately decipher. Is it a surrealist and nonsensical touch? Is it a metaphor for an old and destructive relationship that got out of control? Is it a reference to Hurricane Katrina, which most likely did affect the New Orleans native’s home and life? By remaining unclear about any one of those possible interpretations, the line seems to take on the meaning of all of them at once. It’s as if the complex recesses of Ocean’s subconscious have welded these different events into a single, unusual thought.
This kind of ambiguity lets listeners hear what they want to in the lyrics. In the first verse, for example, Ocean uses the word “boy.” Numerous people have taken this as a hint that the song is about a male lover, though “boy” could just as easily be a generic address — an “oh boy” used to show Ocean’s agony. The lack of clarity gives the song its introspective and personal feel. This song isn’t so much for Ocean’s fans as it is for Ocean and his love. The song is their private space that the listener isn’t fully privy to.
Lyrically, the verses are cluttered with some very big — and very telling — lies. Over the course of the song, Ocean claims, among other things, to have a beach house in Idaho and a fighter jet. These claims are sandwiched between some other big — but more understandable — lies about not actually liking his love. By matching these lies about not being in love with more extreme, possession-based lies, Ocean is divulging how immense his feelings really are for this person. He is also making it seem that much more devastating that his feelings are unrequited.
The chorus, however, is very different. Ocean switches to his falsetto, he layers the vocals and he increases the echo. These alterations all work together to give this section an unearthly feel. It’s as if the chorus is a trip inside Ocean’s mind, where he thinks only of this love — despite all of its accompanying misery.
Ocean has paradoxically created a song that is intimate yet obscure, making it just as alluring on the 100th listen as it is on the first.
Joe Stile is a senior majoring in political science. He can be reached at Joseph.Stile@tufts.edu.