Just outside a pair of 10-foot-tall fences that line the west end of the FYF Fest footprint runs Vermont Avenue. The festival is just a couple blocks off of USC’s campus to the north while the street continues in the other direction to South Central Los Angeles. On Saturday night, while Frank Ocean gave his first US performance in three years at the event — two years after canceling a headlining gig at the same event and going AWOL until the release of a pair of albums last summer — that sidewalk filled up with music fans from both communities. With the show sold out, some fans even climbed trees and poles, stared out of apartment windows, or did whatever needed to be done to say they were there. For a festival that takes pride in declaring itself the best weekend of the summer, the sense was now that this moment could be among the best of these fans’ whole lives.
If it sounds like hyperbole, maybe it is. But when FYF released their lineup several months ago, the gauntlet was laid down that this year could be something truly different. The acts were diverse, spanning age, gender, sexual orientation, and genre. It was the paradigm of care. And that’s not to say other festivals don’t put in the hours to make their own event special. But at FYF, the effort shows. Each year seems hellbent on not just surpassing the previous installment, but blowing it out of the water. You could go on down the line — Frank Ocean’s return to America, Nine Inch Nails’ first festival in several years, Missy Elliott’s first US date in even longer– and find not just a curated lineup of good gets, but a treatise on the DNA of music as both entertainment and art, be it past, present, or future. Sure, you could see Solange’s engrossing, choreographed presentation of her landmark A Seat at the Table or A Tribe Called Quest’s reimagining of themselves without Phife Dawg at other music fests this summer, but when put together as a package, FYF Fest captures a slice of both music in the moment and music as a legacy.
Interestingly, FYF Fest isn’t just a product of expanded resources. Sure, as they do better financially each year, landing their dream lineup is easier to afford. But it is important to note that Solange has played FYF Fest three times now, dating back to 2013. Others, like Run the Jewels, Ty Segall, Mac DeMarco, and Flying Lotus have become annual institutions. It’s not just that the fest books well; it’s that they play the long game, too. This year, with performers like Big Thief, Kelly Lee Owens, Princess Nokia, Arca, and Julia Jacklin still cutting their festival teeth, there’s the sense that FYF knows they are building lasting relationships with a new set of artists, and that the two will continue to grow together.
It was all enough that FYF didn’t even have to rely on special guests like so many other festivals now do. In their first year as a three-day-event, most of the guests kept to the audience. Sure, Brad Pitt wound up becoming part of the show, but others like Chris Rock, Beyoncé, and Katy Perry were happy to just enjoy the spectacle like the rest of us. The only time celebrity culture and FYF’s Hollywood proximity overlapped was when ASAP Rocky had his security team shove away Frank Ocean fans who’d been camped out for a spot just so Rocky could get a better look. Sure, it’s as much as a cool weekend hangout as most other fests are for their community, but it wasn’t just the teens sprinting in when the doors opened on Saturday who brought an unparalleled passion to the sets. Whitney couldn’t step 10 feet onto the festival grounds without being mobbed by fans telling them how good their set was. Princess Nokia was nearly moved to tears by the reception she received. Love for music at FYF Fest is both palpable and intoxicating.
From the locally curated food to the Frank Ocean and NIN pop-up shops, it all works so well that when something falls short, it really sticks out. This might be why the traffic flow issues, including hard-to-navigate VIP and beer garden entry and a remarkably difficult Friday entrance process, stand as the biggest sore on what was otherwise a successful installment. All the issues stem from the location, which is hurt by the construction of a new soccer stadium right next door. In light of this, it’s always pretty amazing that FYF manages to transform their location into an experience that feels removed from the everyday. Tons of effort is made to make it look scenic, even if piles of rubble lurk just beyond the fences.
Still, FYF Fest has never felt more comfortable with itself as it does in 2017. There’s a confidence that comes with knowing that when minor hiccups occur, the programming will be so special that they’ll seem like afterthoughts. The lasting memories will be the fans cheering when Bjork says, “thank you” in her inimitable voice, when a single fan shouts, “Let’s fucking go” as Trent Reznor and company burst out of the gate at 100 miles per hour, when Iggy Pop piles his biggest hits at the front of his set to convince even the most skeptical attendee of his bona fides, and when Tribe manages a legitimate fake out by executing a false end to their set and returning with a powerful, cathartic “Can I Kick It?” Or, for those that lined Vermont Avenue for just a glimpse of Frank Ocean, it might just be standing with your friends, hearing the songs you love, and, for a second, having the world around disappear from the periphery.
We’ve assembled some of the highlights of the weekend in the pages that follow, ranked from worst to best for organizational purposes. We couldn’t get to everything. Know that Solange certainly dazzled with a singular vision, that Kelly Lee Owens turned the Outer Space stage into a showcase for her electronic songwriting, that Anderson .Paak might be the most talented young musician on the planet that Whitney are still one of the best lazy sunshine acts around, that Built to Spill proved why Keep It Like a Secret is an all-timer, and that Hundred Waters proved ready to launch a new collection of songs that should earn them hordes of new fans. That said, here’s what we did get to.
When Louis Armstrong said “Jazz is jazz,” he didn’t mean it as an insult. It was an artful way of putting jazz in its own bubble, of highlighting its unique format and innovative properties. But in 2017, sometimes that isolates it from other music. Badbadnotgood took the Lawn stage to a crowd of curious but ambivalent onlookers, the whole of which didn’t see why they should lower their voice, especially given most just arrived for a weekend of laid-back fun. It wasn’t until the trio brought out Denzel Curry that the crowd zoned in on the band. Badbadnotgood weren’t terrible by any means. Their selections ran the gamut from intricate to cool jazz. When your crowd is even more flippant than you are, though, your set turns into a casual event, and Badbadnotgood failed to control their audience’s attention for more than a song. Maybe it should’ve been an obvious downfall. After all, jazz is jazz. –Nina Corcoran
Big Thief fall victim to their own talents. The Brooklyn indie rock quartet have honed their sound into one that’s ripe with intimate struggles, where folk rock tackles trauma in a way that offers healing to listeners while still trying to heal itself. On record, they pull it off flawlessly. Big Thief are all lush mixing and articulate, rounded words. But due to major sound check issues, they couldn’t deliver the technicalities that make them stand out. Each swell was there, and the gut-punching chorus of “Shark Smile” was, too, but the delivery fell flat. Impacting melodies became nondescript, though soothing, country folk, slipping through one ear and out the other so that other sets could imprint themselves in listeners’ brains instead. –Nina Corcoran
King Krule still can’t decide who he wants to be. To be fair, that can be a good thing if it’s handled properly. For the 22-year-old English bloke, that’s fine when you’re choosing listening to his music at home, totally in control of song order, but it translates to a scattered, inconsistent live set that loses its steam more often than not. The slow-burning trip-hop of A New Place 2 Drown seemed to spill into 6 Feet Beneath the Moon cuts. The loose jazz undercurrents of “Has This Hit?” and “Ceiling” felt stale at best, their lagging made all the more obvious when sharper numbers like “A Lizard State” and “Easy Easy” came into play. King Krule performed a handful of new songs. Cross your fingers they’re meant for the studio, because onstage — even when backed with what should’ve been an explosive band, including horn players — their melodies were drowned out by Archy Marshall’s aggressive vocal delivery. –Nina Corcoran
Little Dragon are dependably enjoyable, and the deeper they get into their career, the more so that holds true for the poppy dance group. The Swedish group played a handful of songs off their newest album as well as a few older cuts, but few stuck out after the songs ended. Perhaps that’s their curse. Little Dragon create effortlessly fun funk and drum-driven electronica that’s easy enough to hop onto, but it lacks just enough so that you forget what grabbed you in the first place, no matter how slick Yukimi Nagano’s voice is. To be fair, they didn’t seem concerned with being much else either. As long as attendees could dance in whatever way felt comfortable, Little Dragon were pleased, as they did the same. For a festival, that’s enough. –Nina Corcoran
Run the Jewels
By now, anyone who hasn’t seen Run the Jewels live is actively trying to avoid them. The rap duo appear at every festival, every year, for what’s felt like forever. Yet, despite that, it isn’t an eyeroll. Killer Mike and El-P give each set their all, though they have every reason to be worn out at this point. When you willingly give all of your music away for free, maybe you have to give 150% at each show. The FYF crowd ate up every moment of the set, and those who stuck around were gifted with Gangsta Boo showing up to do “Love Again” before leading all the females in the crowd in a “pussy power” chant. Both rappers kneeled down to her as she left the stage, not once in a sign of mocking her talent. Run the Jewels don’t make it about them. They make it about people as a whole. That’s why their sets feel so adaptable and digestible upon repeat viewings. So at the end of their set, when they called for a moment of respect for Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington and gave a brief speech asking fans to call for help when depressed, it was clear they meant it. Run the Jewels aren’t in this for the ego. They’re in it for the fans, and they plan on watching out for their fans for as long as they live. –Nina Corcoran
Julia Jacklin both was and wasn’t poised to kick off Sunday’s sets. The Australian songwriter carries herself with a solemness, one that feels shared even if you aren’t particularly lonely, and her slow-burning country rock eased listeners into the day’s music in a veteran way. Live, her songs sound reminiscent of Angel Olsen during her Half Way Home days if she had a robust backing band. But Jacklin appeared despondent in that way, staring off into the distance so deep in her thoughts that she missed the several compliments hurled at her from fans sitting in the back. Perhaps if she were later, Jacklin could have gotten the massive crowd she deserved, much like Olsen deserved back then, but those who did gather around to listen were offered some much-welcome respite and bragging rights considering she’ll likely blow up later down the line.–Nina Corcoran
Photo courtesy of FYF Fest
Flying Lotus prides himself on his performances, because when he begins a creative endeavor, he goes hard. FYF was his chance to push the boundaries. When promised a prime spot following the headliner and plenty of social media buzz, he chose to give viewers a trippy experience unlike any trippy experience he offered in the past: a 3D set. Festival tickets came with a pair of 3D sunglasses, each stamped with FlyLo’s name, that attendees were instructed to wear during his set. Of course, a massive mob swarmed the stage following Missy Elliott, giving claustrophobic folks a panic attack and shorter viewers the inevitable sigh, almost all of whom questioned if it was worth it. The short answer is not really. While Flying Lotus sounded great, digging his heels into expected covers (Thundercat’s “Friend Zone” or Captain Murphy’s “The Killing Joke”) and unexpected covers (the Twin Peaks theme and Travi$ Scott’s “Antidote”) that would’ve been a good dance set, onlookers subjected themselves to lots of vigorous head nodding in an attempt to soak up the visuals. Like most gimmicks, it worked if you looked close enough. Given the set devolved into a Kuso promotion, complete with Flying Lotus playing the trailer onstage, perhaps some viewers wished they hadn’t looked at all. –Nina Corcoran
Photo courtesy of FYF Fest
Late soundchecks plagued the Club stage on Sunday, and in the case of a few sets, it worsened what should have been a hard-hitting performance. Moses Sumney is dependably stunning live, using his mix of raw songs and loop-based numbers to be both technically and sonically memorable. Though he had several backing musicians with him, Sumney performed a relatively quiet set, playing bare-bones numbers like “Plastic” and turning others, like the bass-heavy “Doomed”, into a minimal wash of mellow tones. On “Lonely World”, his looped vocal part got lost in the blend of percussion behind him. Though beautiful, Moses Sumney’s set lost its usual shine, by no fault of his own. Thankfully, the audience was treated to a cover of Bjork’s “Come to Me” (“She did one of my favorite songs, so this is the black version,” he said with a laugh) that turned out beautifully. –Nina Corcoran
Nonstop touring will coax even the shiest butterfly out of its cocoon. In the years prior to Burn Your Fire For No Witness, Angel Olsen seemed to hide behind her guitar, stepping up to the microphone only when the loneliest holler needed to fill the air. With last year’s excellent My Woman tucked into her pocket, Olsen is noticeably comfier onstage, and nearly a year of nonstop touring behind it has given her an itch for quips. Talking isn’t restricted to filler anymore. Now, Olsen looks forward to it. Each break between songs, a coy smile snuck onto her face, and a deadpan observation almost always followed suit. Between moody guitar solos and criss-crossing instrumentals mirroring a ’60s jam session, it was those playful jests that gave her material a flexibility meant for the festival experience. “Y’all look good,” she said. “Better than I remember. Have you been working out?” Olsen paused for an intentionally awkward chuckle and grinned. The audience was wrapped around her finger, and for once, she seemed enamored with the attention. –Nina Corcoran
Slowdive’s return has been one marked with patience and unexpected awareness. The English shoegaze group formed nearly 30 years ago, and when they reunited in 2014, it came as a genuinely unexpected shock. With the youthful exuberance of younger years out of their system, Slowdive perform their material with contentedness that comes with adulthood, which — now that this year’s self-titled record is out — allows them to give a performance that feels calm in its sprawling void. The deeper into their set they got, Slowdive seemed to stand on the edge of space, gazing into the abyss in mesmerized rapture. Does “Souvlaki Space Station” numb you live? Does “Sugar for the Pill” reverberate in your core? Does “Crazy for You” sound unafraid of getting lost? Yes, and that overwhelming sense of pressure turned Slowdive’s set into a beautiful wave of volume and understanding. By the time they closed with a Syd Barrett cover, Slowdive had long made peace with the fleeting stresses of the world, and the crowd, at least during the span of their set, now did, too. –Nina Corcoran
Festival organizers are often tone deaf on a handful of topics, but perhaps the most universally ignored error is how many bookers fail to nab artists from the city in which a festival takes place. According to LA’s 2010 US Census, approximately half of the city’s population is Latinx. FYF received criticism for not booking enough hispanic acts, so they responded by booking Chicano Batman, one of the city’s rising popular Hispanic acts and one of the music world’s most promising acts in general. Judging by the crowd at their set, FYF probably should take note for future editions. The band plowed through a handful of psych-tinged jams, getting theatrical during every moment possible and drawing a crowd that extended far beyond the sound booth as a result. “We’re Chicano Batman from right here,” lead vocalist Bardo Martinez said shortly into their set. “We belong to you!” That they do. If only more acts could say the same. –Nina Corcoran
Punk will never die, but if it ever came close, Iggy Pop would make damn sure he saved it. The proto-punk godfather wasn’t playing games. He played all the big singles at the start of the set, allowing casual fans the chance to hear “I Wanna Be Your Dog” and “Lust for Life” early on so they could dip out should they choose. Those who stuck it out were treated to a handful of his best, including “Repo Man” and “TV Eye”, delivered while throwing water at the crowd, climbing into the audience, and swinging the microphone all over. At age 70, Pop manages to be as reckless as he was in his youth, gritty as he was in The Stooges, and as authentic as most modern punk acts strive to be. He just happens to look half that age while doing it. –Nina Corcoran
“Our professionalism is definitely, like, well, it’s not our fault,” Tim Kinsella said at the start of Cap’n Jazz’s set. Sam Zurick hit his head on the microphone twice, both times before Kinsella finished his sentence. It should come as no surprise that a reunion set like theirs was littered with mistakes and sloppy, unintentional improvisation given that’s what garnered Cap’n Jazz a treasured cult over the years. Kinsella and the rest of the band sprinted through the set with fun — “Oh Messy Life”, “Puddle Splashers”, and the charming “Little League” appeared, the latter of which Devendra Banhart discreetly joined onstage for — while still wholly being self-aware. Emo bros declaring their love were mocked in jest. Their spirited “Take On Me” cover felt like it was on the verge of collapsing. Kinsella threw his tambourine into the back of the room only to have it thrown back onstage. Cap’n Jazz’s set was messy and emotionally jagged, a performance of teenage absurdity performed with recklessness that knowingly will never re-capture it, but that’s the way it should be. How else could a band recreate something they started when they were 15? –Nina Corcoran
Seven years ago, when Perfume Genius was supporting his first album Learning, the show was about 20 minutes long, and just featured Mike Hadreas playing the keys with boyfriend Alan Wyffels sitting beside him and helping out. The set was most notable for Hadreas’ struggle to keep his emotions in check for the duration. Now, a few albums later, and Hadreas is a bona fide rock star. Wyffels is still on stage for emotional and musical support, but there is no doubt where all eyes are fixed. It’s charming when Hadreas tries to divert attention (“special guest alert” he jokes when introducing Wyffels), but charming doesn’t quite describe the majority of the live set. Inspiring is better. More than any other contemporary act, watching Perfume Genius’ ascension has been watching a man realize his potential. It’s crazy to think, but we might not have even reached the peak yet. –Philip Cosores
Nine Inch Nails
During the height of their appeal, Nine Inch Nails were an impressive live act no matter what you thought of their music. Trent Reznor was a force in the ’90s and remains so to this day, hurling himself into the microphone, neck vein nearly bursting through his skin, while the rest of the band launches themselves forward into their own instruments. Industrial rock, especially with dark synth leaking into its crevasses, isn’t for everyone. Just ask anyone who outgrew their Nine Inch Nails phase. But for the majority of the fans, Nine Inch Nails is an act they feel proud of still supporting. For the others, Nine Inch Nails is a band they can relive in a live setting even if they haven’t listened to a full album in years. The band pushed themselves to change with the years, an evolution marked by two hiatuses, a handful of EPs to test the water, and a seamless blend of the old and the new at live shows that, as FYF showcased, is still worthy of attention.
There’s no doubt Nine Inch Nails remain in the upper sphere of their game, or that they have a massive audience. That’s not what’s being debated. The way it hits, however, is, and watching them deliver their set on Sunday night put any naysayers in their place. A massive cloud of smoke filled the stage before they walked out. As the only rock headliner, Nine Inch Nails were essentially tasked with the impossible: to remind a music climate diverging from mainstream rock acts to fall in love with them again. With a ridiculous number of lights poised throughout the stage, black tape dangling from their instruments like seaweed, and black chokers close around the members’ necks, it felt like an old music video come to life. The ’90s hadn’t left. Then again, the ’90s are back in style, so their songs fit snuggly. “Wish”, “Closer”, and “The Hand That Feeds” saw the crowd jumping in unison, a sea of hands and people singing along. Save for a few quiet numbers, including a heartfelt cover of David Bowie’s “I Can’t Give Everything Away”, it was a burst of taut energy that flew by in what felt like just under an hour. Those who weren’t interested could leave on a high note before then. For the rest of the festival attendees, Nine Inch Nails was the rowdy closer needed to get whatever leftover energy they had yet to use out of their system. –Nina Corcoran
One of FYF’s best grabs this year was full-album sets. Blonde Redhead were tapped to play Melody of Certain Damaged Lemons, and a crowd overly eager to hear them play the record straight through were camped out before the trio even stepped onstage. Though it could be argued they got their fair share of press a decade ago, Blonde Redhead are a criminally underrated band, particularly now, when it comes to experimental indie rock. Their FYF set was a reminder of why they’re a cult favorite, all three members delivering a beautiful blend of noisy, boisterous instrumentals with smooth vocals, Kazu Makino leading the way in her usual cool-lipped way. There was little downtime between songs — though all three members did pause to comb their hair, at one point in unison — so as to sneak in a few non-album tracks at the end: “Where Your Mind Wants to Go”, “Dripping”, and “23”. It was surreal, cohesive, and mesmerizing to watch the album be played in full, nevertheless at an intimate stage. The experience was one many fans don’t get the opportunity to enjoy, especially for the fraction of the cost it would take to fly to one of the few cities where they played the record in full earlier this year. The luck of that opportunity seemed lost on no one. –Nina Corcoran
It’s been two years of intense personal binging for Björk. The start of 2015 saw her release Vulnicura into the world, a record confronting her breakup with her partner and the healing process that followed after. Though honest, the album wore her down, leading to several cancelled shows and apparent weariness. Mere weeks before FYF, she closed that chapter of her life, at least in that capacity. Björk performed the last true Vulnicura set in May. Finally, she could look onward, that the levity that comes with that radiated through her at FYF.
Björk arrived ready to celebrate growth and existence. Her outfit choice alone — a giant, tri-colored dress styled like a 3-D foldout paper ornament — seemed to indicate she not only wanted to party, but quite literally was a piece of the party, an ornament that’s bold and airy but doesn’t want to be the center of attention. That took shape in the setlist. Instead of sinking into the gloom of the hyper-personal Vulnicura, Björk pulled from albums spanning her career like Post and Homogenic. Behind her were visuals of moths laying eggs and birds seducing one another. Like any Björk set, it felt like an explosion of life, but this time it felt replenishing. Björk could be Björk, and she accented that emotion with bursts of fire behind her onstage and literal fireworks rocketing into the sky high above, filling attendees with joy that would last long after her performance ended. –Nina Corcoran
Jonathan Richman’s claim to fame is one that could never be understated: in 1970, he began the Modern Lovers, a protopunk band that inspired much of new wave, alt punk, and indie rock as we know it. Yet, as famous as the Modern Lovers and Richman’s antics in the band were, it’s his ridiculous, slightly absurd solo career since then that’s allowed Richman to become such a legend. Backed by his longtime musical partner Tommy Larkins on the drums, Richman walked onstage with his guitar — still in its case — and got to work performing his brand of children’s story-style folk songs. Though he was one of the first sets of the day, Richman was welcomed by a sizeable crowd, the majority of whom already seemed not just familiar with, but in love with Richman’s solo material. Somewhere between the ode to the sun and the admonishing apology about the photo pit stage gap, Richman found his groove, dancing with jingle bells and maracas in hand while alternating between languages. Rarely can a music set feel like a comedy set. Jonathan Richman not only mastered the art of both, but rolled it out with complete charm, offering the kind of authenticity that pains your face from smiling too much at a natural-born entertainer. –Nina Corcoran
The award for unexpected inspiration goes to Princess Nokia. Destiny Frasqueri, the New York City rapper behind the moniker you’ve likely seen by now, packs her songs with multi-dimensional beats and lyrical direction. What this allows her to do is perform not just to a wide range of onlookers, but perform for them. Princess Nokia defined her set by its inclusivity. After dubbing The Club area a “safe space,” she began rapping for everyone female in the room, shouting out those who otherwise often feel ignored. “Tomboy” and “Brujas” became dance party anthems bookended by eruptive cheers. “We all deserve to be free. We all deserve to have fun. We all deserve to be loved. We all deserve to be cultured. We all deserve to be safe,” she said between songs. It’s a laundry list of empowerment, later resurfaced in a reminding list that the audiences ancestry, melatonin, and culture are excellent, too. Shortly after she dedicated “Mine” to all the “afro beauties,” Princess Nokia climbed into the crowd and turned over her trust, spreading her limbs wide as audience members not so much letting her crowd surf, but rather lifting her up, supporting an artist who so thoroughly, deeply, and genuinely supports them. –Nina Corcoran
Some legends never lose it. Few continue to influence even when out of the spotlight. Missy Elliott’s headlining set on Friday marked her first performance in the US in 10 years and the release of Supa Dupa Fly 20 years earlier, but every track she busted out still sounded fresh, reminding anyone who forgot that Missy Elliott was and still is a force to be reckoned with. Elliott is a visionary who refused to go halfsies on her creative goals, who refused to alter her body image, and who refused to settle. It’s what made her an idol for young girls and fellow musicians alike. In a way, her headlining set became a call to arms, for fans to rise up in her defense and for onlookers to remember the importance of standing by your ideas. If Missy Elliott found a way to work it, so could you.
During FYF, she tore through a massive setlist, performing a chorus or two from one song before switching into another, that felt like a sample platter of old cuts and eternal classics. “Get Ur Freak On”, “1, 2 Step”, “WTF (Where They From)”, and “Lose Control” all lit a fire under the audience whose nonstop dancing went into overdrive, including the gaggle of celebrities — Beyoncé, Björk, Katy Perry, Queen Latifah, Tyler, the Creator — stuffed onto the side stage. Though her less-popular hits were tacked on to bigger numbers, like “Minute Man” getting attached to “I’m Really Hot”, it was Missy Elliott’s commitment that gave the set its shine. She kept in time with her army of backup dancers. She hit her notes despite losing her mic pack. Best of all, she acknowledged her absence over the years by giving fans a full-bodied show, one that ended with her descending into the audience and, shortly after, vanishing in a mirrored box, leaving only a puppet version of herself in her place. –Nina Corcoran
A Tribe Called Quest
A Tribe Called Quest have always centered themselves around momentum: advocating for a better future, discussing current-day social issues, asking listeners to learn from the past, and always willing to reflect on their roles in the three. Without sacrificing a shred of their street cred or succumbing to filler vocables, the ’80s rap group not only established themselves as one of the best of their generation, but set the standard for rappers in the decades that followed. With five albums to their name, ATCQ illustrated rap’s healing powers. Though long-rumored due to a handful of one-off performances over the last few years, the group’s comeback album, We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service, came at the perfect point in American politics because of the election and the worst point in ATCQ’s age because of Phife Dawg’s passing.
A Tribe Called Quest used their second show behind this album as a tribute to the co-founder in continually tasteful ways. Throughout a career-spanning setlist — hits “Oh My God”, “Electric Relaxation”, and “Can I Kick It?” were sewn in beside throwbacks like “Award Tour”, “Bonita Applebum”, and “Excursions”– and a few solo songs, the members of ATCQ would step out of the camera during Phife’s verses. An open mic stood attended by his spirit, and the camera refused to pan away until the recorded audio of Phife’s part wrapped. Q-Tip gave an impassioned speech about Phife’s integral role to the group. Later, they played his verse about falling in love from “Butter” to admire his unparalleled wordplay. Amid a set of standout moments, including a surprise appearance by Raphael Saadiq on “Buggin’ Out”, ATCQ wasted no time pushing hip-hop forward, and they refused to take those steps without Phife by their side in spirit. –Nina Corcoran
Of all the titles attributed to Frank Ocean, none feels as consistently applicable as “artist.” In the music definition of the word, Ocean has a critically acclaimed voice. In the arranger definition of the word, he proved he’s far more than a voice with Blonde. But in the traditional definition of the word, Ocean is an artist who cares about the greater, multi-interpretative aesthetic appeal. Ocean couldn’t hide his perfectionist tendencies even if he tried. So after cancelling on FYF as a headliner back in 2015, the numerous delays with Blonde, and then bailing on the other two 2017 US performances (Sasquatch! and Hangout festivals), it was clear that if he did turn up, it would be a spectacle. Sure enough, Frank Ocean’s FYF performance wasn’t just a memorable headlining set. It was a full-package art deal pulled off seamlessly.
How does an artist repackage a hyper-personal album, one that some listeners find boring, so that the intimacy is preserved while still upping the excitement? Make studio session musicians perform the instrumentals live. Make sure one is a modern prodigy (Alex G) and another is a studio session dependable (the bassist). Make sure they perform in a setup that prioritizes intimacy and humanness (a circle). Make hyperactive visuals that alternate between camera types (like a RED and a ’90s camcorder). Make a famous filmmaker (Spike Jonze) handle one of the cameras. Make it nod to nostalgia whenever possible, like with doodle-covered scaffolding or Hello Kitty karaoke or the background screens on a laptop (Dumbo! Rooster Teeth! Microsoft Word!). Make your outfit cater to both high-brow street fashion (“Instant Karma” Nike shirt) and elementary trinkets (a smiley-face watch). Make a cover song in your own style (The Jackson 5’s “Never Can Say Goodbye”) to stay humble. Make an inexplicable celebrity show up (Brad Pitt), but don’t pick a musician so as to not upstage yourself. Then turn around to see yourself on the screen. Realize that is you. You made this. You’re making this. You get the honor of making things.
Frank Ocean’s performance was about experiencing the now. His songs are already intimate (“Self Control”, “Nikes”, “Solo”) and the new ones (“Biking”, “Chanel”, “Lens”) offer a feeling of unfamiliarity, or at least less so compared to the Blonde cuts and “Thinkin’ Bout You”. Each hit like you were hearing them for the first time. Ocean soaks in his mysterious allure, thus positioning public appearances as a spectacle. Breaking that barrier, then, should make himself more relatable, and every time he did so during the performance, it felt surreal. One fan yelled out a compliment about his shoes — sequin-encrusted Converse — and he thanked them, laughing gently. A performance like Ocean’s feels off-the-cuff, like each second is too real to be planned, but it couldn’t have been more so. The staging, the architecture, the details, the logistics, the agreements, the paperwork, the equipment. It all worked together, and watching it live felt like watching a concert film that had already been cut, color corrected, and sound edited. Frank Ocean’s set was too good to be true, too real to be real, but it was, and in that it feels like it can never be over-exaggerated. How can a lived experience that only concerned itself with the immediate present be over-cherished? It can’t. Frank Ocean made the greatest modern art piece of 2017, and the best part is it never felt like art. –Nina Corcoran
Click ahead for an exclusive photo gallery.
Photographer: Philip Cosores