“This is my hometown,” Frank Ocean announced Saturday night at the House of Blues in New Orleans. The Los Angeles-based R&B singer left the Crescent City after Hurricane Katrina, but he received a hero’s welcome on his return, eliciting squeals of recognition for each song despite not yet releasing an official album.
The show was his first solo performance, and it was truly solo—he was onstage alone with backing tracks on a laptop.
Ocean’s system still had a kink or two. “This is awkward,” he said quietly when the video screen behind him started showing footage from western movies without audio. That problem was quickly solved, and having his band on computer didn’t limit him in any obvious ways.
Song lengths never felt shorter than what the moment demanded, and he wasn’t locked into a pre-programmed sequence. Ocean changed the set list on the fly, gesturing for his offstage computer tech to skip forward more than once. He solved the problem of not having a lead guitarist to play the solo at the end of “American Wedding” by strapping on a Guitar Hero controller, turning his back to the audience, and apparently playing along as the video game’s footage for “Hotel California”—the song’s key sample—ran on the video screen. “I’ve always wanted to do that,” Ocean said afterward.
He let his songs do the work early on, delivering “Thinking of You” and “Swim Good” effectively, but Ocean was feeling his stage and vocal muscles, stretching them and expanding them with each song. Fortunately his dispassionately told stories of love and loss in a world that assumes impermanence could handle the load. By mid-set, he leaned into “Dust” and was more obviously expressive as he sang, “Who’s that laughing in my library?” He never employed the deliberately ambivalent tone he occasionally uses on his Nostalgia Ultra mixtape, but the device wasn’t missed, and he sang “Thinking About You” with far greater authority than on the YouTube version of the track.
The energy generated by “Swim Good” and “Novacane”—his only official releases—slowed when Ocean debuted material from the album he’s working on for Def Jam, and it felt forced when inserted his strongest resume lines into the set. He co-wrote “No Church in the Wild” and “Made in America” for Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch the Throne, and he sang those songs’ hooks on the album. Live, he treated them as a medley and sang them as hooks instead, so after the thrill of recognition, the excitement quickly faded. He wrote “I Miss You” for Beyoncé’s 4, and he sat down at an electric piano to perform it live to end the evening. As warm and soulful as his performance was, a slow ballad about longing was an odd note to sound before sending the sold-out crowd into the night.
Ocean’s part of the Odd Future hip-hop collective, which made news in New Orleans the weekend before when rapper Left Brain took swings at photographers in the photo pit during the group’s performance at the Voodoo Experience. Left Brain was at the House of Blues Saturday night, as was Tyler the Creator, but they were in the audience and never appeared onstage. Ocean wasn’t a part of the festival show and didn’t mention it from the stage.