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Here’s What Frank Ocean’s Coachella Set Was Really Like In-Person

Frank Ocean

Frank Ocean’s long-awaited headlining Coachella set went down last night, and everyone has an opinion about it.

All over Twitter, people are theorizing about what happened before, during, and after the controversial set. Why was Frank so late? Did he decide to completely change the set design last-minute, which led to logistical issues? Why didn’t he sing more of the songs in full? What happened to the livestream? Are Coachella organizers upset?

The funny thing is, most of these theories and hot takes are coming from people who weren’t actually there. The performance wasn’t livestreamed, so it was mostly consumed through low-quality IG Live sessions from people in the crowd. Fortunately, two members of the Complex team—Ecleen Luzmila Caraballo and Ben Felderstein—were actually in attendance, and they’re here to share their firsthand accounts of the set. 

Here’s what it was really like to be in the crowd for Frank Ocean’s headlining Coachella performance.

What was the best thing about Frank’s set?

Ecleen: The best thing about Frank’s set is that it happened. After a six-year performance hiatus, anything was better than nothing, some will likely say. Hungry fans who essentially manifested this headlining lineup with Frank as the grand finale—a dream scenario for many music aficionados—left saying they’ve seen Frank Ocean live and, for some, that’s enough.

Ben: Frank performed the music that he actually got to play in a unique way. We’ve all heard these songs countless times, but each one was composed in a totally different way from what I’ve heard before. This gave the whole thing a very exclusive feeling to it that made it feel special—something that’s very important to me about festival sets (especially headlining Coachella performances).

What was the worst thing about his set?

Ecleen: Yes, we saw Frank Ocean live, but did we? After nearly an hour of waiting for Frank’s set to be reworked (and reportedly reimagined in order from him to be at ease for his grand return), I joked to the person next to me: “Imagine if this isn’t being live-streamed because we ourselves are going to be sitting in a livestream, and he’s not even here.” Lo and behold, a couple of songs in, Frank walked in front of his multi-tier, stage-encompassing screens to show face and do his contractual due diligence. He was in fact there… but I wasn’t entirely wrong. “This is chaotic,” he uttered halfway through. And that it was. 

Frank is a mystery and has thrived off of that essence and energy for the entirety of his career. Life is chaotic, which isn’t always a negative, but in this case, I fear it was. The chaos ensued, both before and during the set, with motion sickness-provoking camera pans. The dancers (or presumably skaters) walking around the studio setup for endless laps gave a feeling that was reminiscent of one of Kanye’s Yeezy shows, and the set ultimately led to an abrupt ending. This whirlwind of moments, unfortunately, did not sum up to a cohesive performance. The production hiccups, short set, and the fact that he opted to dance along to several pre-recorded songs (“Nikes” being one of them), rather than performing them, made it difficult to enjoy the experience as a whole. It was a set that gave the aura of organized chaos that was actually meticulously planned, but as the night went on, the audience—both in the crowd and at home—realized that was not the case. It was Frank’s show, but it was for him—not for us.  

Ben: The lengthy DJ interlude right in the middle of it. Especially now, given how things ended, dedicating that much of the performance to highlighting other artists is a bitter pill to swallow. I understand his desire to shed light on the work he’s doing with Homer Radio, but after waiting six-plus years, and an extra hour, I was there to see Frank and Frank alone. (And of course, the actual worst part was the 12:22 a.m. “curfew” that brought everything to an abrupt ending.)

How would you describe the energy in the crowd before, during, and after his set?

Ecleen: Prior, there was definitely an air of anticipation. During, it was one of confusion with moments of bliss, because, despite what we were seeing, for those who traveled and waited all these years, Frank’s songs are about feeling. The feeling after was that of disappointment, but also joy. “That was incredible,” a woman in the restroom uttered as we exited. Was it? I wondered.

Ben: The energy in the crowd changed quite a bit throughout the night. My group got to the main stage during the beginning of Bjork’s set, and the moment her performance ended, the crowd surged forward. We stood for the next few hours, and spirits were high during the first half of the wait. Some chants broke out and people were cracking jokes about whether he’d show up or not, but no one was really worried. Once his original set time came and passed, though, people got a little angsty and the jokes got a bit more serious, but the crowd didn’t move an inch. During the set, the crowd was very eerie, honestly. People were singing along, but no one was really dancing. Of course, Frank Ocean’s music isn’t the easiest to dance to, but it really felt like the people in the crowd were appreciating what they were witnessing more than enjoying where they were.

What’s your personal review of the performance?

Ecleen: Rather than a succinct review of it as a standalone set, this headlining performance, in addition to that of Bad Bunny’s (I won’t speak on Blackpink because I didn’t get a chance to attend), conjured thoughts of what makes a superstar these days and why, as an audience, we’ve become complacent with the least of efforts from them. I’m old enough to remember when we demanded more, and when the label of “superstar” could be defined by reason and effort if not by voice alone. Many are bringing up Beyoncé as an example of that standard, and they’re not wrong. For a large group of people to have traveled perhaps thousands of miles, and certainly spent thousands of dollars, to experience one or a couple of (whom they consider) greats and be given the bare minimum (whilst those very “greats” are paid millions every 20-30 minutes each weekend), leaves a lot to be questioned. Many people were expecting magic, but magic and fear are just a step away from each other. I fear we’ve lost the magic of what it means to be a superstar.

Ben: I’ve had a dozen people text me this morning, asking this exact question, and the best answer I can come up with is that it was like going to a museum. You’re happy you’re at the museum and you feel really good about being there—the art you’re taking in is special and worthy of appreciation—but you’re not exactly having a blast. This was one of those sets that’s better to reflect on afterwards than it is in the moment. On the completely opposite side of the spectrum, Calvin Harris closed out Saturday night on the main stage, and he knew exactly what he needed to do to throw a party, cycling through his massive catalog of club hits. Did I have more fun at Calvin Harris’ set than Frank Ocean’s? Yes, 100%. But I’ll remember, think about, and talk about Frank’s set a hell of a lot more. At the end of each of his songs, there was tension in the air, and the crowd went completely silent each time Frank’s music cut. After “Chanel,” someone standing near me sneezed and a few dozen people joined in on saying, “Bless you.” That normally doesn’t happen in the middle of the Sunday night headliner at Coachella! There was a feeling in the air that the performance could end at any given moment, and that’s exactly what happened. 

The day itself got off to an auspicious start, when I showed up to the merchandise booth, but there was no Frank merch—just generic Coachella-branded things. (Bad Bunny and Blackpink, on the other hand, had that tent filled up with a ton of merch.) Throughout the day itself, all anyone could talk about was if Frank was going to show up or not, and what the vibe of his set would be like. And after the long wait, it would be easy to feel slighted by what went down, but that is not the takeaway for me. Frank Ocean is incredibly talented, and he knows it. The songs that he did sing sounded incredible: his voice was strong and the visuals were effective. It’s a set that I’m going to be thinking about for a very long time, and I’m certain my opinion on it will change. I’m thrilled that I was there, and would happily struggle through the pain of waiting for it again. 

Did your experience differ from the commentary you’ve seen online?

Ecleen: Watching from home, albeit through a second-hand stream of a livestream, afforded the comfort of missing out on the air of disappointment that filled the space in-person, and for that I am jealous. Endless parking exit lines and lack of rest meant not even having time to really process the experience and pile up even more frustration by morning. But live experience aside, a quip and difference I have in regards to some of the backlash is the fear of criticism, and/or criticizing, from both artists and fans alike. It is possible to both love Frank and have wanted more. I also find it odd, and mildly offensive, that people are assuming that the lackluster performance was due to his personal loss and grief, and presuming things about his mental health. Although I don’t know him personally, I get the feeling he’d want to be afforded more. Artists are layered and there are a multitude of reasons why this performance wasn’t a home run to many. Frank beautifully honored his brother on stage, and then went on to perform his set the way he wanted to. It’s OK to label and unpack your sentiments on how things unfolded without speculating on the “why.”

Ben: A lot of the backlash that I’ve seen now really harps on Frank’s stage setup and “not being able to really see him,” but that wasn’t too much of an issue for me. We know who Frank is, we know how Frank is, and no one should have expected him to perform in a traditional way: fully onstage in front of nearly 100,000 people. The entire Coachella stage was transformed into a high-definition screen that allowed you to see inside what was basically a jam session inside of a garage. It was intimate to him, and I viewed it as a giant listening party that just so happened to have Frank Ocean singing at it.

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