Frank Ocean confounds, disappoints with brief, baffling Coachella 2023 set: 'Insulting to anyone who is a fan'

Thankfully, festival veteran Björk, and her 864 drones, swooped in to save the day.

Frank Ocean underwhelms at Coachella 2023. (Photo: Twitter/Frank Ocean Updates
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It’s tough being a Frank Ocean fan — especially this weekend.

The enigmatic and reclusive rapper, considered to be one of the great visionary artists of his generation, had not performed a full public concert since 2017 and or released an album since 2016, so he was arguably the most anticipated act at this year’s Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival. But as he closed out the fest Sunday — taking the main stage almost a full hour late, leaving that stage twice to give others the spotlight, playing half-hidden behind a screen, and eventually pulling the plug due to a curfew violation — even the most devoted Ocean diehards had difficulty defending what was possibly the most lackluster headlining performance in Coachella’s 24-year history.

By midnight, “Frank Ocean” was a top trending topic on Twitter, and for all the wrong reasons.

The unpredictable Ocean, aka Christopher Edwin Breaux, has long held a reputation for being a reluctant star and cancelling concerts: for instance, he pulled out of the FYF Festival, which like Coachella was an AEG/Goldenvoice event, with just a few days’ notice in 2015. Ocean was supposed to play Coachella 2020 before it was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and he was not on the bill when the festival returned to Indio, Calif.’s Empire Polo Club in 2022. This year, he did show up, but the first indication of trouble came Sunday afternoon, when signs reading “NO FRANK OCEAN MERCHANDISE” were displayed in the merch booths, along with whiteboards in the press tent stating that no professional photographers would be allowed in the pit to shoot Ocean’s show.

Then it was announced without explanation, via a tweet by YouTube’s official account, that Ocean’s set would not be livestreamed as previously advertised. (Representatives for Coachella’s promoter, AEG/Goldenvoice, did not respond to Yahoo Entertainment’s request for comment.) Undeterred Frank fans on the actual field of course found a way, securing their spots near the main stage hours before his scheduled 10:05 p.m. time slot and bootleg-broadcasting his hyped show on their phones though Instagram Live, TikTok, and Twitch. But none of what eventually made it onto the internet lived up to that hype — and once again, Twitter was abuzz with frustrated fans who felt like they’d been duped.

With the clock ticking away towards Indio area’s curfew — which typically is an hour earlier, at midnight, on Sundays and weeknights — Ocean left those fans hanging. By the time he finally emerged at 11 p.m., the impatient audience was primed and pumped for a high-production, hits-packed spectacle on the level of the weekend’s earlier glitzy headliners, Bad Bunny and BLACKPINK. Instead, the elusive Ocean anticlimactically appeared on a dimmed stage that was mostly blocked by a massive screen, with only a narrow gap revealing the stage’s cave-like interior. This intimate setup, which resembled a humble recording studio, may have worked to great effect at a smaller venue, but it simply did not translate to a sprawling field packed with more than 100,000 people.

Independent investigative outlet the Festive Owl has reported that Sunday's main stage was originally supposed to feature a fully functional ice rink, but Ocean decided to scrap that idea on Sunday afternoon and have the ice melted down — and if this last-minute production request was not heeded, he'd cancel his show entirely, leaving the festival without a closing headliner. However, AEG/Goldenvoice has not commented on that situation either. (A behind-the-scenes security employee on the grounds had tipped off Yahoo Entertainment at 3 p.m. Sunday that Ocean was rumored to be canceling, but this seemed to be untrue when he eventually showed up.)

Whether or not Ocean's ice-skating rink was replaced by that simple darkened lair, it was there in that lair that Ocean remained for most of the night — his back partially turned, his face obscured by the hood of his blue parka, hunched over a microphone — while the audience was forced to watch his shambolic show through camera angles of him performing from behind the screen. Some confused fans were actually overheard half-jokingly speculating that Ocean wasn’t even physically at Coachella, and was punking everyone by just running a pre-taped video performance on the main stage’s jumbotron — because that’s exactly what it looked like.

Halfway through his performance — which fittingly kicked off with a rock version of “Novacane” (Ocean’s debut single about meeting a girl at Coachella), but never got into a groove due to many awkward, silent, between-song lulls — Ocean actually exited the stage to let DJ Crystal Mess take over with a “little rave mix” interlude of his songs (including the Jersey Club remix of “Slide” and a bounce edit of “Pyramids”). Ocean watched his DJ from the stage wings, clutching his famous green baby doll, later explaining: “This is f***ing chaotic, but so much fun. … Looking back, I feel like in 2020 when I was just starting to throw parties in little clubs in New York before shit started going down, I was having a good time listening to new music with DJs coming in on their shit. … It’s good that it’s not always all about me, so I wanted to bring a little of that.”

In another “not about me” moment, Ocean also surrendered the stage to a lip-synching young piano player named Josiah, who he said was “playing my inner child.” And there were other moments when Ocean, who seemed to want to be anywhere but Coachella, walked away from his mic completely and allowed his pre-recorded vocals to play on, not even bothering to go through the motions and mouth along.

Ocean, whose last albums were the dual releases Blonde and Endless seven years ago, also disappointed fans when he seemingly started to hint that new music was forthcoming — a tease that immediately elicited cheers of delight from the crowd — only to dismissively clarify, “Not that there’s not a new album — just not right now.” Instead, in the evening’s only moment of real connection, he explained that he was playing Coachella, not to promote new material, but as a tribute to his brother Ryan Breaux, who died in a 2020 car accident at age 18.

“My brother and I, we came to this festival a lot. I feel like I was dragged here so much of the time. I hated the dust; I always dealt with a respiratory infection,” Ocean stated. “I would always come here, and one of my fondest memories is watching Rae Sremmurd with my brother. … I know he would’ve been so excited to be here with all of us. I wanted to say thank you for the support and the ears and the love for all this time. I’m going to get back to the songs.”

Those songs included reworked (and sometimes barely recognizable) versions of “Pink + White,” “Solo,” “Chanel,” “Self-Control,” “Wiseman,” and an abridged “Nikes,” as well as covers of Ice Spice's “In Ha Mood” and the Isley Brothers’ Aaliyah-popularized “At Your Best (You Are Love)” — but bafflingly, not Ocean’s signature song, “Thinkin Bout You.”

Perhaps Ocean had other hits planned for his setlist, but after the Isleys cover, he abruptly announced, “Guys, I’m being told it’s curfew, so that’s the end of the show.” The stage then suddenly cut to black as he vanished and concertgoers cried out for “one more song” — but those chants soon turned to jeers and tears as their pleas for an encore were ignored. Twitter once again exploded with irate posts, but some fans expressed concern for the superstar, observing that he appeared to be struggling throughout his lethargic performance and hoping that he was doing OK.

Björk, who preceded Ocean's underwhelming set on the main stage Sunday, also elected not to have her show livestreamed, also as a seemingly last-minute decision. But in a genuine you-had-to-be-there Coachella moment, the Icelandic enchantress — the first female artist to ever officially headline the festival, back in 2002 (when she was pregnant!), and one of the few women to ever have that honor — saved the day with her stunning, orchestral tour de force.

Taking over the golden-hour symphonic slot filled by past standout heritage acts like Hans Zimmer and Danny Elfman, Björk pulled off a spectacular, spiritual-experience show that will surely go down in Coachella history alongside legendary past sets by the likes of Beyoncé and Daft Punk. While she stated on Instagram that her Coachella performance prioritized “simplicity” — at least compared to her current “very complex” Cornucopia touring revue — it was in fact a dizzying and dazzling production that took place under a desert sky illuminated with 864 color-coordinated drones. It also included a full orchestra conducted by Iceland’s Bjarni Frímann, with the headdressed, Betty Boop-eyed diva looking like a living Christmas ornament, one of those touch-sensitive porcupine lamps from Spencer Gifts, or (as Ken Jeong has often guessed) the Dandelion from The Masked Singer in her hoop-skirted latex gown. Björk later posted that she hoped “the audience got slashes of synesthesia while watching” her 13-song, career-spanning (and, it should be noted, totally punctual) set, which established her as Sunday’s de facto — if unofficial — headliner.

The second weekend of the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival will kick off Friday, back on the same Empire Polo Club field. As of this writing, Ocean is still slated to headline its final day, but whether or not he will play the same disorganized and disappointing set, if he (and Björk) will appear on the livestream, or if there will be an ice rink on the stage remains to be seen.

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