Two Versions: Voice and Memory

How do we remember? What is it that clings to us long after the moment has gone? Memory tends to exist first as a series of images, of sensations encoded in words that we then arrange as we piece together the narratives we think of as our remembered lives. The unsettling truth, though, is that all of these stories are our own constructions, and once we start sifting through them, trying to pin down the kernels of reality, they begin to drift apart, vaporous as curls of smoke escaping up from the dance floor.

Frank Ocean has spent a lot of time in parties. This much he knows. But parties are usually tough to remember. Was it then, or was it that other time? Were you there, or was I thinking about someone else? His new album, Blonde, is not a party album. Instead, it’s a remembering-the-party album, a reminiscence of times past, examining the subjectivity of memory by lingering over the moments at which memory begins to fall apart. What remains, he asks, when everything else is stripped away?

The opening track on the album, Nikes, is in many ways emblematic of the entire project (our track by track review of which you can read here) and though the album is far more expansive in scope, “Nikes” does what a good opener should do, introducing many of the ideas that are fleshed-out further as the album progresses. The song begins with a strange high-pitched vocal effect. “These bitches want Nikes,” he croons, sounding as though he’s just taken a deep hit off a helium balloon. “They lookin’ for a check. Tell them it ain’t likely.”

The video released on Apple Music to accompany Nikes has an interesting addition: a pitched-down Frank speaking over the first pitched-up first verse. I got two versions, he says at the beginning, sitting against a McLaren F1, drinking something from a styrofoam cup. It’s a statement that resonates on multiple levels, some literal (the two voices, the two albums, the visual homophone in a shot of two virgin Mary statues followed by a close up of two young girls) and some more figurative (the two versions of an event experienced and remembered by two different people).

The video works in much the same way as the lyrics, presenting the listener with glowing snippets of people and emotions from a hazy party-dream, androgynous nude bodies with strap-on wings, lights, money, glittered asses, Frank in a racing suit on fire. Remember one thing: don’t take no photos in the party, that’s rule number one,” says deep-voiced Frank. “Rule number two: don’t take no photos in the party.” It’s an insistence on memory and memory alone, an understanding that without the objective reference of the camera’s eye, the moments are free to vibrate on a higher plane, one of purely mental existence.

From there, it’s up to Frank to bring them back down to earth, to us, channeled through his own voice, in his own words, the image of an image, the memory of a song. Just past the three minute mark, Frank’s regularly pitched voice comes in with a striking refrain. In the video, he’s suddenly alone on a sound stage, singing to a camera hanging from a boom:

We’ll let you guys prophesy

We’ll let you guys prophesy

We gon’ see the future first

What is the difference between prophesying and seeing the future? For Frank, it’s this: to prophesy is an act of construction, but to see the future is an act of experiencing it as it comes, turning to words only after you’ve crossed its ever-present threshold. One of my favorite moments on the entire album is a subtle explication of this process, when Frank sings:

Acid on me like the rain

Weed crumbles into glitter

Rain, Glitter,

The poetic reduction in these lines mimics the reduction of experience to memory–the specifics of Frank’s memories are packed into an unusual simile (acid on him like the rain–the preposition is unexpected) and a magical transformation (weed crumbling into glitter), and then the two lines are even further reduced into just the two descriptors: rain and glitter. Each word gets its own musical line, emphasized by the space around it.

This linguistic reduction, however, has a paradoxically expansive effect, as the two words become resonant in their generality, each suddenly able to evoke in each of our own memories of rain, of glitter, the scenes of our lives pooling there beneath the eaves of the mind.

I found myself sitting and smoking in the still damp of a porch during a summer storm, listening through the window to the party inside and watching how the street light reflected up off the wet asphalt. This was years ago now, or maybe it was a tomorrow yet to come. Lost in the music, I couldn’t quite remember.

Henry Whittier-Ferguson