you can't always get what you want

It’s Not Like Delayed Gratification Is a New Concept in Frank Ocean’s Music, So Chill Out Already

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The Greeks, it’s said, possessed a clear-eyed view of the disasters brought on by desire: The proof was that their myths were filled with catastrophes triggered by the inability of mortals to refrain from striving after more than they could bear. Granted artificial wings, Icarus attempts to fly nearer to the sun; his wings melt and he falls into the sea and drowns. The beauty of the Sirens’ song fills sailors passing by with a desire to approach them; their ships shatter against the stones and they fall into the sea and drown. Perhaps the ultimate vision of desire is of Tantalus, condemned to stand alone in the underworld surrounded by branches loaded with fruit: Because each branch retreats from him at the same speed with which he approaches it and approaches him at the same speed with which he retreats, he’s destined not only to starve eternally, but to be eternally tortured by the immediate possibility of an end to starvation.

Intriguingly, fruits show up in Frank Ocean’s lyrics in a similar capacity: the grapevines, mangoes, peaches, and limes on Channel ORANGE’s “Sweet Life” operate largely as they do in the myth of Tantalus, as emblems of a satisfaction that seems always to be out of reach, images of the boundless luxury the narrator of “Sweet Life,” raised poor enough to not take money for granted, observes his crush in carelessly possessing. (Other fruits appear elsewhere on the album in “Pink Matter” [peaches and mangoes] and, of course, in the title of the album itself.) It’s been noted that the songs on Channel ORANGE are arranged unconventionally — neither randomly arranged nor arranged according to an obvious narrative through line. With their disparate array of narrators, characters, and situations, the tracks are linked to each other as myths are linked to one another and they relate to the album as a whole as myths relate to a mythology.

Just as Greek mythology ceaselessly repeats the narrative of ruin brought on by striving and failing to break the limits imposed by fate, the tale that Frank returns to time and again is an arduous story of longing, which, if not always impossible to gratify, is nonetheless always a longing so often and so long frustrated that by the time gratification arrives one barely can appreciate it as such. The Greek myths are aristocratic narratives created by an aristocratic class that speak to a desire to exceed the bondage of the gods and natural world; set in modern times, the songs on Channel ORANGE trace the vagaries and deferrals of longing across lines set down by society, not nature: class lines, gender lines, racial lines, religious lines. It’s a mistake to read their lyrics autobiographically. The protagonist of the album is not any one person, not even Christopher Edwin Breaux: it’s the desire, experienced by him and countless others, that occurs when one’s beloved is both a) indifferent and b) socially superior.

What frustrated desire does teach, though, is the ability to plan in the long-term, even the ultimate long-term: Or do you not think so far ahead? ‘Cause I been thinking ‘bout forever. The fundamental distinction in Frank’s narratives lies between those with the power to satisfy their desires and those without, between the ones who, however numbly and thoughtlessly, benefit from social and economic advantage and the ones who have to settle for the sour consolation of being trained to endure long periods of coyness and neglect, benching and ghosting, not being texted enough and not being texted at all — of being trained to withstand, in a word, tantalization.

Of course, by making a beautiful, somewhat oblique album about delayed gratification Frank Ocean and his second album have themselves become objects of great desire; of course, by prolonging the wait for that album for more than a year, he was putting his fans in a quite uncomfortable position. But if you’re truly a fan of his, being capable of waiting indefinitely for something that you very much desire should not have been an issue. What could you possibly have bonded with in his music if not precisely that?

Maybe Frank Ocean’s Trying to Teach Us Something