We Ranked the 16 Best Frank Ocean Songs
Frank Ocean onstage during the 2012 MTV Video Music Awards at Staples Center on September 6, 2012 in Los Angeles, California (photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images).
With a mystique and reverence for childhood nostalgia that rivals J.D. Salinger, Frank Ocean is a generational talent. His confessional writing and Tumblr posts give us a glimpse into his life. Yet, figuring out his next move is like solving an ever-morphing puzzle. That’s probably why hundreds of YouTube channels, blogs, and podcasts are dedicated to deciphering his lyrics.
The transition from songwriter to artist is notably a rocky one for Frank Ocean. He began his music career penning tracks for heavy hitters: Beyoncé (“I Miss You”), Brandy (“1st & Love” and “Scared of Beautiful”), John Legend (“Quickly”), and Justin Bieber (“Bigger”). Listening back, you can hear Ocean’s signature electro-R&B imprint on the tracks. Within a few years, he not only featured on tracks with big names, but also secured verses and vocals for his own projects.
From Nostalgia, Ultra to Blonde, it’s undeniable that Ocean creates records with limitless replay value. In between projects, he has released a slew of singles to satiate fans. With a discography like his, it’s no wonder Coachella asked him to headline.
Being asked to choose your top Frank Ocean songs is like someone holding a gun to your head and making you choose your favorite child — albeit exceptionally more difficult because your kids did not make over a decade’s worth of bangers. But I’ve done the impossible and chosen the 16 best Frank Ocean songs — from “American Wedding” to, well, you’ll just have to continue reading to find out.
16. “American Wedding”
“American Wedding” is for the people with Pisces placements, and those who believe in love at first sight while still hung up on two-month situationships. Customizing the Eagles’ “Hotel California” with lyrics of a shotgun wedding, Ocean’s fantasies get the best of him: “Daydreams of you / My pretty woman in a ballgown.” Fear of commitment, specifically marriage, is a running theme across Ocean’s discography, and on “American Wedding” he braces himself for the ruin of divorce before the vows have even been uttered.
15. “Slide on Me” ft. Young Thug
Blonded Radio, Ocean’s Apple Music 1 show, was Frank’s digital playground. He dropped remixes, loosies, and B-sides with no prior warning, including a version of “Slide On Me” featuring Young Thug. Sure, “Slide On Me” was already a vibrant Endless track, but the Thugger feature really took it up a notch. You can count on Thug for perplexingly funny lines like, “I screamed when I saw the titties on Janet Jackson,” and homophonic alchemy like, “Cop me a Sudan I’ma gon’ turn up a bomb.” The lyrics are impressive, but their shape-shifting cadences really sell the collab. This is probably one of the few Frank Ocean songs you could queue up at a party without getting kicked out.
14. “She w/Tyler, the Creator”
The origin story is as follows: Frank Ocean had a boatload of money, a lavish apartment, and a sick car, but was miserable in his Def Jam deal. A year later, he ran into a rag-tag collective named Odd Future, who breathed life back into him. Ocean and the group’s leader, Tyler, the Creator, quickly formed a close bond. “She” is one of their many collaborations. Controversially flippant about murder and necrophilia, the Goblin track is a voyeuristic portrayal of lust. Though “She” is on Tyler’s debut album, it’s just as much an Ocean track. His lusty R&B vocals balance Tyler’s graphic lyrics. It also showcases Ocean’s succinctly intricate and cheeky storytelling: “Golden rubbers in these denim pockets / On my waist there’s a black Glock / New girl moved on the block / She been plottin’ on my brown cock.” You can hear him and Tyler egging each other to see who can say the most egregious thing.
“Nikes” set the tone for Blonde’s avant-garde palette. The first time we hear Ocean, his voice is pitched-up to an almost unrecognizable degree. Much more than a palette cleanser, the opener also provides an intimate look into Ocean’s mindset while recording the album. He mourns the loss of A$AP Yams and Pimp, while also reflecting on police brutality and the plight of Black people in America: “R.I.P. Trayvon, that nigga look just like me.” We also get some references to some of the people we met on Channel Orange, like the woman from “Lost.” While somberly reflective and heart-wrenching at certain moments, “Nikes” solidified that Ocean is always one step ahead of everyone, captured in those opening lines from the track’s second verse: “We’ll let you guys prophesy / We gon’ see the future first.”
Coachella is the catalyst for this druggy Nostalgia, Ultra track. During his headlining performance, Ocean told concertgoers that he had a lot of cherished memories at the festival. He also asked: “Who’s high right now?” About 12 years ago, his character in “Novacane” probably would’ve been in the audience, hands raised with a college student moonlighting as an adult performer by his side. It’s truly baffling that this 2011 track was Ocean’s debut single, and remains relevant over a decade later. It can be summarized in one word: numb. Consuming cocaine as his first meal, he tries to forget the painful loss of this mystery woman. Though he’s participating in orgies with beautiful women and high out of his mind, his efforts are futile. So many memorable lines with double meanings are in this song. “Brain like Berkeley,” he sings, referencing the California college and Elizabeth Berkley from Showgirls. This line was so clever, the UC school adopted it for a course on Frank Ocean’s lyricism.
11. “Biking” ft. JAY-Z, Tyler, the Creator
Though he’s fond of flashy cars, nowadays, Ocean’s vehicle of choice has two wheels. An ode to BMX culture, “Biking” is literally about the sport but metaphorically about the circularity of life. “When’s the last time I asked for some help that / I couldn’t get from nobody else,” he repeats as if in a trance. Longtime collaborators and friends JAY-Z and Tyler, the Creator stuck to the theme in their respective verses, the latter matching the unforgettable freneticism of the ending. Whether it’s a ‘90s vintage bicycle or a military-grade e-bike, you could probably catch him tuning out the busy streets of NYC or London.
10. “Moon River”
When Frank Ocean covers a song he makes it his own. Think about his 2011 cover of Coldplay’s “Strawberry Swing,” or his 2016 cover of the Isley Brothers and Aaliyah’s “(At Your Best) You Are Love.” Honestly, I didn’t even know the former wasn’t an original until writing this piece. His ability to Frankify even the most well-known tracks is uncanny. When he dropped “Moon River,” an Audrey Hepburn classic, Ocean gave fans a staple Valentine’s Day track. Some even claimed it as their wedding song. He swaps the ukulele for his signature pitched vocals and minimalist pianos, but the wide-eyed adventurousness of the original remains.
9. “Forrest Gump”
Frank Ocean is a documented cinephile. If the Stanley Kubrick shoutout in “Novacane” or the Reservoir Dogs reference in “Sweet Life” didn’t give it away, this penultimate Channel Orange track does. Named after the titular character of the 1994 dramedy film, “Forrest Gump” follows the perspective of his love interest Jenny Curran. Over looping organ-like synths, Ocean yearns through uncertainty. He performed the track at Coachella before he and Channel Orange came out. “I know you, Forrest / I know you wouldn’t hurt a beetle / But you’re so buff and so strong / I’m nervous, Forrest,” he says on the track. The homoerotic themes are undeniable, and so was the destructive potential of this confession. This song, to many, sounds like a song they’ve known the words and melody to all along. It’s hard to wrap your mind around a song released in 2012 feeling like a timeless classic.
“Rushes” marked the transition from Ocean’s intricate storybook narratives in Chanel Orange to soul-bearing emo-confessionalism. His relationship is hanging by a thread and he’s at a crossroads. Should he remain with this person he loves even if the spark isn’t there anymore, or is there something better, more exciting out there? Over lethargic strings, he wallows through the void. Jazmine Sullivan’s otherworldly vocals run throughout the album, and she gives the track a hymnal feel: “Help me, help me, help me off my feet.” Similar to the ecstasy of falling for someone, the electric guitar swells into a headrush as Ocean fumbles for the right words. In the end, nothing can match the serenity of finding your forever person: “They’re gone and you’re still here, riding my two wheels / I love the way you make me feel.”
7. “Crack Rock”
Doubling as truth serums and heartbreak elixirs, drugs are their own characters in Ocean’s music, and their effects are much more sinister on “Crack Rock.” Ocean gets straight to the point on the track: “You don’t know how little you matter until you’re all alone / In the middle of Arkansas, with a little rock left in that glass dick,” is truly a bonkers way to start a song. (It took me a while to catch the Little Rock, Arkansas wordplay.) The dark humor — familial members refusing the drug-addicted central character access to their baby — feels more like a defense mechanism than a cruel Chappelle Show skit. But underneath it all is a song that’s an admonishment of police brutality and the War on Drugs at its peak, rounded out by ‘70s soul-funk-inspired production.
Like Van Gogh, Taylor Swift, and Dalí, Frank Ocean’s muse is the dead of night. The darkest hours are when ghosts of past lives emerge, painful memories surface, and calls from a séance are being had. The personification of the 💯emoji, Ocean’s hustling while everyone sleeps. The world is quiet but his mind is rowdy. After the iconic beat drop though, the tone is melancholic: “Know them boys wanna see me broke down and shit / Bummed out and shit, stressed out and shit.” The highs of nightlife have worn off, and all that’s left is a hangover and unanswered drunk texts.
From its opening lines, “Ivy” emotionally guts you: “I thought that I was dreaming / When you said you loved me / The start of nothing.” First love can feel like a fever dream. Crystalline guitars and Frank’s semi-dissociative vocals on the track certainly make it feel that way. But by the end of the track he has to come to terms with how things are no longer what they used to be. “I ain’t a kid no more / We’ll never be those kids again,” he wails. All you can do is look back at the memories and hope you can forgive yourself for mistakes made, and connections lost.
Aging is a gift even though society and the beauty industry will work tooth and nail to convince you otherwise. On “Wither,” weather-beaten skin, calloused hands, and smile lines etched from decades of laughter are all evidence of a life well lived. With Alex G’s minimalist guitar strums and Frank’s raw vocals, the track sounds like a homespun demo. Crooning about the tough times in a relationship, Frank parallels rough patches with the way dirt helps flowers grow: “Hope a garden grows where we dance this afternoon / Hope our children walk by spring.” It’s definitely a hidden gem amidst the 45-minute video accompaniment of Endless.
3. “Pink + White”
After sending a massive flood to wipe out humanity, God made a promise: “I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the Earth.” Ocean was a freshman at the University of New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina destroyed his home and recording studio. That natural disaster created a domino effect that led Ocean to the person who made him believe in the transformative power of love. Water, like this intimate connection, is terrifying — “If you could die and come back to life / Up for air from the swimming pool” — but is also a revitalizing force — “You kneel down to the dry land / Kiss the Earth that birthed you.” The instrumental sounds like a warm, summer sunset. When you think it couldn’t get any better, Beyoncé starts harmonizing in the background like an angel. It’s simply heavenly.
Homosexuality has historically been taboo in hip-hop. In 2012, Ocean’s coming out letter shook up the industry’s heteronormative ideologies. Many of his tracks are wistful reflections on the tenderness and pain of queer relationships, but “Chanel” is a brazen bisexual anthem. “My guy pretty like a girl / And he got fight stories to tell,” Ocean raps, illustrating the co-existing feminine and masculine traits in his partner. Binaries run thematically through the track: he oscillates between fiery falsettos and laidback raps, victim and villain, mere mortal and a God complex. Ocean double dutches on muted pianos with boasts that he typically reserves for features.
On his debut album Channel Orange, Ocean is a thrilling auteur. At the switch of a beat, he goes from telling a devastating tale of the search for Cleopatra, to a braggadocious account of a flashy pimp exploiting the Black queen. There are honestly so many ways to interpret the track. Just when you think you’ve solved it, you unlock a hidden meaning in one of his lyrics that sends you back to square one. Its warped ‘70s synths are so captivating you don’t even notice that the song is almost 10 minutes. “The way you say my name makes me feel like I’m that nigga / But I’m still unemployed.” Ocean remains the only person who can make a broke man sound appealing, and that’s no easy task.
Heven Haile is a contributing writer for Pitchfork with bylines at i_D, Dazed, bitchmedia, and more.