Why Doesn’t Frank Ocean Rap More Often?
Understanding why his verse on A$AP Rocky’s “Purity” is so good.
Like those New Years’ Resolutioners who promise themselves that, yes, this is definitely the year they’ll work out consistently, I’m starting off strong by writing again pretty soon after my first post. I assume the natural high will eventually peter out, my Medium subscription cast to the wayside like many an annual gym membership.
However, sometimes you hear/see/do something that makes you feel absolutely inspired, and that’s exactly how I felt when A$AP Rocky & Frank Ocean’s new song “Purity,” on Rocky’s new album TESTING. Frank steals the show with a barnstormer of a verse that is so densely packed that I basically listened to just that part on repeat five or six times (sorry A$AP Rocky, I didn’t even get to your part until my seventh listen).
My very first thought as I was listening to the song for the very first time was why doesn’t Frank Ocean rap more often? On this song, on Earl Sweatshirt’s “Sunday,” on the Odd Future song “Oldie” — he is jaw-droppingly good (I know I’m probably missing a bunch more, but these are the ones that really stand out to me). Like getting an Andre 3000 feature, activating Frank out of his cave and onto a song is guaranteed $$$. Frank rapping on a track is doubly special. Perhaps the reason his rapping features are so good is that they’re so few and far between, but I’d still love to hear an album of Frank going full-throttle over weird, meandering beats like on “Purity”.
After spending far too much time trying to pick up exactly what Frank was saying on “Purity”, I gave up and turned to Genius to read the lyrics on there as I listened to the song. Such a cool website!
I’m not going to be able unpack this song line-by-line, but rather I thought I’d pick out some of my favorite parts, in chronological order, in the hopes of finding out exactly what makes this verse so great.
Quick note: I’m a complete layman when it comes to describing music and poetry, but I tried to make sense of what I liked on a rudimentary level. Mostly it had to do with how the words sounded, more-so than the meaning of the words themselves (if that makes sense). It would be great if someone more technically adept could explain how right or wrong some of what I’m trying to say is!
Spendin’ time spinnin’ out toward, a desire that wasn’t pure
Born before the virus was cured, pitch perfect, violins on the floor
Fast forward, linings on my skull
This the type of design I could afford
Fast forward, bands out
Got they hands out like they acknowledgin’ the Führer
Rewind Nas track 6, rewind dance crazes
The first thing that really struck me about this song was that the beat isn’t super accessible. It basically starts off with just a strummed guitar and a pitched down Lauryn Hill sample. I’m sitting here wondering how exactly anyone is going to rap over this. Then the drums start, Frank clears his throat, and goes in.
The Lauryn Hill-sampling chorus repeats the phrase “I gotta find peace of mind,” and so I don’t think it’s surprising that Frank, whose breakout album was called Nostalgia, Ultra., starts by looking back. The next few lines are sub-divided by the words “born before,” then “fast forward,” then “fast forward” again, and then “rewind.” The contributors at Genius have a few ideas about what the “born before the virus” line exactly refers to, but rather than dwelling on that, I’m more interested in how Frank is able to chart his journey in just these first six/seven lines. The phrase “born before” situates us in the past, as Frank then accelerates us through different points in his life with each “fast forward.”
The word “rewind” serves as a nice counterpoint to the previously mentioned “fast forward[s],” reminding us that though Frank moves forward through his past so quickly, the point of this introduction is in fact to look back, contrasting time moving forward and memory moving backward. That’s a lot to densely pack in to a few bars, and I’ll delve into how Frank manages to do this a little later.
Again, the people at Genius found a cool double-meaning to exactly what Frank gets at when he says “Rewind, Nas track 6,” which could either refer to the song titled “Rewind” on Nas’ It Was Written, and (the reading I like more), the song “Memory Lane (Sittin’ in da Park)” off Illmatic. Of course, Frank could be (and probably is) going for both meanings here, adding another layer of depth to seemingly throwaway reference.
Both these Nas songs feature the rapper also looking back and reminiscing with almost rose-tinted glasses. This reference accentuates the idea of Frank himself fast-forward and rewinding through his memories as a means of trying to find “peace of mind.” It’s a pretty strong start to the verse as Frank grapples with the tension between time and memory.
This first line is awesome. The “Read”/”Freed”/”Feed” internal rhyme sounds so effortless. I’m not 100% sure here, and I think I’ll need some help fully understanding this on a more technical level, but this line is kind of when I realized Frank wasn’t rapping conventionally. Internal rhyme is something I’ll keep coming back to, and after listening to the song a few times I think it’s the centripetal force that makes the verse so good.
Note: There’s a better, more ‘proper’ analysis out there somewhere that would probably include a discussion about bars — but this is something I’m unfamiliar with for the most part. Hopefully I’ll be able to add edits later with a more clear idea of how bars tie in.
Quite often, when you hear — and I’m using this word because I don’t have a better one — ‘simpler’ rap rhyme schemes, it’s just one word, usually towards the end of the line, that rhymes with a word or words in the next line. Basically the literary analogy I’d make would be that typical rap rhyme schemes are, for the most part, end-rhymes — and oftentimes these end-rhymes are rhyming couplets.
An illustrative example that immediately springs to mind is Drake’s verse in “Forever:”
Last name Ever — first name Greatest
Like a sprained ankle, boy, I ain’t nothin’ to play with
Started off local, but thanks to all the haters
I know G-IV pilots on a first name basis
In your city, faded off the brown — Nino
She insist she got more class — we know
The six lines are made up word/s at the end of the line rhyming with words at the end of the next line. Drake really doubles down on rhyming couplets to exaggerate the effect of each rhyme: note the pause after “Nino” and “We know” to really emphasize the end-rhyming couplet.
What Frank is doing differently, however, is that the words “Read”/“Freed”/“Feed” are all in the same line, and so the cadence sounds very different when compared to more ‘traditional’ rap rhyme schemes.
Here’s an article that explains internal rhyme better than I do. The article mentions Edgar Allan Poe’s famous use of internal rhyme in the poem “The Raven”:
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“’Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door;
Using the poem “The Raven” as an example I hope shows how Frank is doing something similar — both in one line (“Read”/“Freed”/“Feed”), and across multiple lines (“On the wall/Seen it all”).
Another example, from a more contemporary source than Poe, is the song “Hypnotize” by the Notorious B.I.G. He’s also really mastered this idea of internal rhyme as well:
Here, the internal rhyming is pretty insane; it’s a motif that’s played out multiple times very quickly.
But basically, my not-so-clear point is that Frank also makes use of these internal rhymes throughout the song—from the very beginning:
Spendin’ time spinnin’ out toward, a desire that wasn’t pure
Born before the virus was cured,
And for whatever reason, these internal rhymes make the song even more densely packed, as if he’s rapping half-lines or half-thoughts. It feels somewhat stream-of-consciousness. It creates an uneven, jagged and haphazard flow to his rapping, allowing him to pack in more words/thoughts, each one short and colliding quickly with the next. This is why he’s able to say so much in such few lines at the beginning of the song.
Because Frank is singing, it doesn’t even have to be a full word that carries the internal rhyme, short sounds within the word can create the same effect. Listen to how Frank enunciates Toward/Pure/Cured/Floor/Forward/Afford — it’s enough to make it work. Frank has the luxury of moulding words that may not seemingly rhyme on paper into common sounds that carry over a few lines because his words are primarily being heard. In the example above, Poe uses pretty on-the-nose rhymes — Napping/Rapping/Tapping — as I assume his poems were primarily read from the page.
Flickin’ ash, pourin’ a half, don’t pour in a glass
Pour it in foam, that’s white, got eggshells in my omelette
My earlobes, they yellow like the yolk is runnin’
Brain on drugs, I still ain’t got no piece of mind, fuck
What’s awesome about this part is that the beat slightly switches and so does Frank’s delivery. The internal rhyme idea also reappears here:
Flickin’ ash, pourin’ a half, don’t pour in a glass
Frank sounds like he’s bragging, with his voice going a little deeper and each word being dwelled on for a little longer: “flickin’ aaassshh.” From the introspection of the first section, tonally, Frank shifts into a slightly different territory. Frank slows down and deepens his voice, really accentuating each word. The verb tense (flicking, pouring) implies that we’re now situated in the present day, one in which Frank has more swagger. He mimics the sometimes over-the-top, blustering lyrics seen in more traditional hip-hop songs as a means of highlighting his own success in the current day. I had a little bit of trouble really understanding the intent here. I’m not sure if Frank is doing this in a slightly satirical way or not, especially as he enunciates the words “ash,” “glass,” “omelette” with almost-hyperbolic swagger— but I think the ambiguity (at least in my mind) makes this section way more interesting.
He ends this section by saying “I still ain’t got no peace of mind.” The change in beat marks a shift in subject matter, as Frank goes from the more liminal ideas of “freeing his mind” and “desire” to the reality of “flickin’ ash” and “pourin’ half”. The beat change, the change in Frank’s voice, and the turn in subject matter are all pretty sudden, but the song is nonetheless carried by the internal rhyme which acts as a through-line connecting the dots.
Woof woof, dogs in the place, loose tooth, lost in the fray
Roof lost on the Wraith, roof lost on the way
Freeway, no Rozay, brute force, Brüt champagne
Tell the front desk to cut new keys
Reserved in the Mercer for two years, in two suites
Took out the bed like it’s fuck sleep
I’ll smack a bitch like it’s hot hands, fired the label like fuck brands
How fantastic a line is “woof woof, dogs in the place, loose tooth, lost in the fray.” I’d be lying if I had any idea what it means, but it’s the type of thing that would sound ridiculous coming out of anyone else’s mouth.
The next two lines:
Are probably my favorite of the whole song. Genius has once again got you covered if you’re trying to find out exactly what a Wraith is, or how a roof has been lost on the way, but what I particularly love here is the dexterity in the wordplay: “On the Wraith/On the Way” and “Brute force/Brut Champagne.” It’s also interesting that the beat slows back down here, but Frank uses really short words and snappy syllables like quick jabs, making it seem like he’s rapping in double-time. I think the repetition of words (“Brute”/“Brut,” for example) also really underscores this idea of rapping double-time when you listen to the song. They act as demarcators for a new idea to come tumbling in, at least aurally.
The internal rhyme idea here also goes crazy, and I’ve bolded above the parts that adhere to it. I think this also ties in to the point I just made of Frank rapping as if in double-time; the recurring internal rhymes, along with the repetition of sounds, work to break up these lines into short, punchy phrases.
I also just noticed as I was rereading that what I was trying to explain in this section occurs earlier as well: Flickin’ ash, pourin’ a half, don’t pour in a glass — “pourin’ a/pour in a” is the same technique as “brute force/Brut champagne.” The verse becomes almost self-referential as it goes on. Frank is really a master of manipulating words, leveraging how they sound to elicit really visceral reactions out of the listener — though I had trouble initially understanding exactly what he is trying to say, how he’s doing it is really affecting.
Comfortable low nigga, fuck Xans
Comfortable slow, who the fuck ran
Nothin’ is sweet, nothin’ in tank sweet, it’s just a tank P
Salt on a slug, soda on slugged teeth, chewing on nothing
You’re tweakin’ or somethin’, you’re reachin’ for somethin’
You’re speakin’, speak up then, you’re thinkin’, you’re overthinkin’
One blink and I’m precummin’
That could turn every no one into someone
I spent some time describing how Frank uses internal rhymes and similar sounding words to his advantage, creating these micro-moments within lines to jam-pack ideas together. The end of this verse, everything kind of goes into overdrive — both the internal rhymes (bolded above) and the repetition of words/sounds (“salt on a slug/soda on slugged teeth”; or “somethin’/for somethin’”; or “speakin’/speak up then”). It’s a verse-inside-the-verse where everything is jacked up and exaggerated.
Genius seems to think that the “You’re” Frank is addressing here is actually himself, as in an internal monologue, paranoia starting to hit. The introspection at the beginning of the verse turns inward, with the repeated use of “You’re,” the repeated “-in” sound, and the short phrases mimicking someone spiraling out of control. It works pretty well.
- It’s really hard to find out exactly what Frank is going for here, but I think that’s part of the point. The chorus keeps talking about “trying to find peace,” and so the stream-of-consciousness, unedited feel to the verse plays out like a scattered attempt at just that.
- I really like the idea of aimless movement, throughout the song, beginning with “spending time spinning out toward” “fast forward[ing]” then “rewind[ing],” and finally the couple lines about the Wraith, roof down on the Freeway.
- The parts when Frank starts to swagger are great. This song starts off super introspective, fast forward/rewinding, trying to find peace of mind, and then flips in an instant for a line or two. It reminds me of how the line “how anal am I gon’ be when I’m holding my gun” comes somewhat out of the blue in the song “Sunday.”
- I felt like Channel Orange had some really fascinating narratives, whereas Blond/Solo was a little bit more on the abstract side, both musically and lyrically, this verse definitely seems to be leaning a little more to the Blond/Solo end of the scale.
- I think Frank is just a naturally gifted writer, who can tie together some surreal, almost metaphysical moments (“spending time spinnin’ out towards, a desire that wasn’t pure”), with really crystal clear realism (Flickin’ ash, pourin’ a half, don’t pour in a glass). In both these lines, he’s doing an action “spinnin’” vs. “flickin’/pourin’” but uses these verbs to different ends, to underscore different things.
- The dexterity in his word-choice and the complex rhyme patterns in just one verse is super impressive. Whether the output is a rap or a song he’s sung, he stretches, compresses and accentuates sounds and leverages word-choice and meaning to his advantage. We need more.
Maybe I was overthinkin’, but I am glad that I’m over thinking about this song.