the ultimate frank ocean reference guide
Investigating the many inspirations behind his most iconic lyrics.
Frank Ocean’s lyrics are riddled with references to his favourite cultural obsessions: from cult movies to ancient Egyptian queens and flashy red sports cars. He embeds these images throughout his lyrics so delicately that you might not even notice them lurking there in his heavenly vocals. To help you decode his aesthetic landscape of hot summer afternoons playing Street Fighter on Playstation, or swallowing prescription pills until his jaw slackens, here’s a reference guide to the music of Frank Ocean.
Disclaimer: While this lays the groundwork to referential Frank Ocean lyricism, not all references are included. Frank is a lyrical wizard and we don't have time to write the dissertation that this topic truly deserves.
“I found you laying down with Samson and his full head of hair” (Pyramids)
Samson was a Biblical judge whose hair granted him superhuman strength, enabling him to slay lions with his bare hands and massacre an entire army using only the jawbone of a donkey. Until his lover Delilah betrayed him, that is, by cutting off his hair. Soon afterwards, Samson was captured by his enemies and had his eyes gouged out before being forced to grind grain for the rest of his life.
“I found my black queen Cleopatra / Bad dreams, Cleopatra” (Pyramids)
Frank is referencing the Ancient Egyptian queen Cleopatra who dishonoured her country by becoming the mistress of Marc Antony, a conqueror who wanted Egypt as Roman territory. Here, Frank goes from calling her “the jewel of Africa” to wailing, “our war is over, our queen has met her doom”. Frank uses the story to tell the story of a lover who left him for another, only to find that their new partner is a dirtbag who refuses to get a job, leaving them to work long nights as a stripper to sustain them both.
"Too weird to live, too rare to die" (Lost)
This is a quote from Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, a novel which follows two men on their drug-hazed pursuit of the American Dream — crunching through pills as they drive through the desert and hallucinating tentacled aliens while tripping on acid. Frank’s lyric refers to someone who is too strange to be accepted by mainstream society. But if they die no one will see their type again, because they’re just that special. Either way, they’re cursed.
"The water's blue, swallow the pill / Keeping it surreal, whatever you like" (Sweet Life)
In The Matrix, Keanu Reeves's Neo is presented with two pills: a red pill, which would allow him to wake from the artificial reality he’s trapped within, and the blue pill, which offers him the chance to live in comfortable obliviousness once more. The narrator of Sweet Life encourages the song's rich protagonists — who have enjoyed landscapers, housekeepers and silver spoons since they were born — to take the blue pill and continue to luxuriate in their cash-flushed ignorance.
"Living in Ladera Heights, the black Beverly Hills" (Sweet Life)
Here Frank references Mr. Pink's (Steve Buscemi) description of Ladera Heights in Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs. It is an area said to be populated by very wealthy black people.
"My pretty woman in a ball gown / I'm Richard Gere in a tux" (American Wedding)
Here Frank casts himself as a sugar daddy with a teenage wife by comparing himself to Richard Gere; an actor who had a romantic relationship with Julia Roberts in both Pretty Woman and Runaway Bride when she was 18 years his junior. Importantly, in Pretty Woman Gere saves Roberts's sex worker from financial ruin, immersing her in a capitalist fairytale with designer handbags, fluffy white towels, steak dinners and red ball gowns. This relationship between sex, work and money is explored by Frank throughout his oeuvre; he falls in love with hard working strippers or hangs out with trust fund babies dripping with dollars.
"Forrest Gump, you're on my mind boy / Running on my mind boy / Forrest Gump, I know you're Forrest / I know you wouldn't hurt a beetle" (Forrest Gump)
Ocean likens his lover to the eponymous Forrest, who is characterised by his dopey and wholesome nature. In the film's most iconic scene Forrest's childhood sweetheart Jenny urges him to sprint from bullies as they throw rocks at him; here, Frank's lover races through his mind, leaving it clouded with thoughts of him.
"My fingertips and my lips / They burn from the cigarettes" (Forrest Gump)
In Forrest Gump the naive Forrest is perplexed by a sex worker whose kisses taste like ash: "I'm sorry I ruined your New Year's Eve party, Lieutenant Dan. She tasted like cigarettes." Ocean aligns himself with the woman, underlining the incompatibility between his sinful kinks and the purity of his Forrest-type love interest.
“Twin peaking, highs and lows / We shaded off, they know” (Rushes)
Here Frank uses Twin Peaks, David Lynch’s cult 90s TV show, to depict the turbulence of drug taking.
“If I feel like a ghost, no Swayze / Ever since I lost my baby” (Swim Good)
Frank seems infatuated by 90s heartthrob Patrick Swayze. Here he references Swayze’s romantic blockbuster Ghost before mentioning Dirty Dancing and the childlike sweetness of Swayze’s love interest Baby, who is sheltered by her protective parents. He references the film again in Solo, on which he paints a lonely scene of dancing alone and high: “Hand me a towel, I’m dirty dancing by myself / Gone off tabs of that acid.”
“Boyz in the hood’ll give me updates like they know the weather / If you ain’t in the streets you can’t see the sky on my hair” (Slide On Me)
Frank calls out John Singleton’s Boyz n The Hood, a film set over a scorching LA summer with characters relaxing at BBQs in bright afrocentric clothing, Hawaiian shirts, neon cycling shorts and ornate beaded earrings. In a 2012 interview Frank spoke of his love of the film: “Have you ever seen Boyz N the Hood? There are certain movies that are shot with a summer haze, that look like the best part of summer. That vibe in that film is super nostalgic for me and I was chasing those colours, trying to make a record that had that feel."
“That soft pink matter / Cotton candy, Majin Buu, oh, oh, oh” (Pink Matter)
Majin Buu is a pastel pink character from the Dragonball Manga series. This is not the only colour reference within the song, with Frank later singing of the “grey matter” of the brain and the “pink matter” of a vagina. Frank’s attraction to different shades makes sense given that he has synesthesia — a condition in which a person's senses are interconnected. They hear a certain musical note and see a colour, hear a sound and smell perfume, or see a word and taste a flavour.
"My guy pretty like a girl / And he got fight stories to tell / I see both sides like Chanel / See on both sides like Chanel" (Chanel)
Here Frank seems to be using the interlocking C letters of the Chanel logo to allude to his romantic relationships with both men and women, leading many fans to brand the song a bisexual anthem.
“In the pink like Killa Cam” (Chanel)
Cam'ron, aka Killa Cam, is a Harlem rapper who popularised wearing pink in hip-hop. He famously appeared in the tabloids standing outside a 2003 Baby Phat show in sugary sweet pink mink with a matching pastel flip phone.
“Now film it with that drone cam / Put a zoom on that stick, Noé” (Chanel)
In this narrative Frank compares himself to Gaspar Noé, a filmmaker who once shot a similarly creative sex scene from the POV of a vagina.
“Rolling when you ride, ride the Rodman / Got one that's straight acting” (Nikes)
Like Frank, the pro-basketball player Dennis Rodman is queer: sleeping with both men and women and frequently dressing in drag. He once wore a wedding dress, yellow wig and fake lashes when getting “married” to himself. Frank is also known for breaking down gender stereotypes, as seen in the Nikes video, where he glitters silver and wears thick eyeliner.
“She need a ring like Carmelo (hands up, oh my God) / Must be on that white like Othello (oh my it's a real life angel)" (Nikes)
Frank compares a woman who's looking for money and fame to Carmelo Anthony, a talented basketball player for the New York Knicks who has never won a championship ring after continually failing to win an NBA Final. He goes on to refer to cocaine as "that white", the drug that our "Othello" must be on. Othello is an African king in a Shakespeare play who uses "charms" (drugs) to seduce Desdemona. After being manipulated into believing she’s having an affair he smothers her to death out of jealousy — after realising her innocence, he commits suicide, crying about murdering a "real life angel".
"Bed full of women, flip on a tripod, little red light on shooting / I'm feeling like Stanley Kubrick, this is some visionary shit / Been tryin' to film pleasure with my eyes wide shut but it keeps on moving" (Novacane)
In Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut, Tom Cruise's Dr. Hartford stumbles upon a secret society that hosts orgies with sacrifices and white Venetian masks. To draw attention to the seedy voyeurism of his sexual encounter, Frank references the erotic thriller. The little red light could also be a nod to Kubrick’s 2001: Space Odyssey where HAL 9000, the evil sentient computer, is represented by a blinking red eye.
“And why haven't you ever been jealous about me? / You are very, very sure of yourself, aren't you?” (Lovecrimes)
Eyes Wide Shut appears again in Lovecrimes when Frank samples Nicole Kidman's scornful, marijuana-fueled rant on infidelity. In the film, Nicole’s character Alice is arguing with her husband, but Frank strips away his retorts. As she screams into a silent void, Alice sounds furiously schizophrenic — in keeping with the protagonist from Lovecrimes who "pleads insanity" after love has mauled their mind apart.
This article originally appeared on i-D UK.