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Coachella proved that elusive acts with fitful output remain big draws

The elusive Frank Ocean and Jai Paul have little music between them, yet they drove the conversation at Coachella's opening weekend

By Charlotte Krol

Frank Ocean at an earlier performance in 2017 (Picture: Alamy)

“I want to talk about why I’m here, because it’s not because of the new album,” Frank Ocean told the crowd during his headline Coachella set on Sunday night. Those words were likely agonising for fans waiting to see the enigmatic star perform live at his first show since 2017.

After releasing his seminal second album Blonde in 2016, Ocean largely withdrew from view. He dropped a handful of singles including ‘DHL’, ‘Chanel’ and ‘In My Room’, launched Blonded Radio on Apple Music 1, and founded Homer, a luxury jewellery and accessories brand. Blonde landed at Number One in the US, the UK and beyond, with 276,000 equivalent album units earned in the US in its first week alone [via Billboard]. Ocean may have a huge following, but those sales figures were no mean feat for an independent artist working in a period where streaming was fast becoming the dominant mode of listening. 

Thankfully, though, Ocean did confirm at Coachella that a follow-up to Blonde is coming. “Not that there’s not a new album, but there’s not right now,” he said. The singer went on to explain that his 18-year-old brother Ryan Breaux, who died in a car accident in 2020, was the only reason he was performing. “These last couple years my life changed so much. My brother and I, we came to this festival a lot… I know he would’ve been so excited to be here with all of us.”

Despite Ocean turning up an hour late – and judging by fan-shot videos (Coachella scrapped the planned livestream) – the experimental alt R&B singer-rapper still drew a mighty crowd. Ocean’s behaviour on Sunday was nothing new; the ever-reluctant superstar has pulled live shows before with little warning or turned up late.

There have been mixed reviews. Some people were sympathetic to a grieving man who appears to get anxious or doesn’t particularly enjoy performing live. His vocals in some clips, such as ‘Bad Religion’, sounded pained and beautiful. Rolling Stone said that Ocean’s vocals for opener ‘Novocane’ were “stunning and pitch-perfect”.

Other people complained of a general disconnect thanks to a largely immobile Ocean wearing a jumper with the hood up and facing away from the audience. Others were annoyed about the musician rocking up late, missing off classics such as ‘Ivy’, and then ending his set abruptly because he’d breached the curfew. 

But the fanfare around Ocean’s headline set, which saw those not in attendance at the festival desperately trying to source fan-shot livestreams, showed that an elusive star with a fitful output and a no-frills stage set-up can command great attention. Ocean may have just two studio albums under his belt – 2012’s Channel Orange and 2016’s Blonde (see also: 2011 debut mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra; 2016 visual album Endless) – yet he can still top the bill at one of the world’s biggest festivals.

Elsewhere at the Californian festival, another mysterious artist lit up the festival billing. Jai Paul, the London musician who set the blogosphere alight in the early 2010s with his ‘BTSTU’ and ‘Jasmine’ demos and then disappeared for nearly a decade, was booked for his first ever live performance. Yes, his first ever performance – and with his name placed high up on the 2023 festival poster.

Like grief-stricken Ocean, who has tried to manage perhaps unwanted attention on his personal life (see his Tumblr coming out letter), Paul has shunned the spotlight. The artist’s debut project was leaked on Bandcamp in early 2013, which proved disastrous for him personally. He told fans that “things gradually went south and I had a breakdown of sorts. I was in quite a bad place for some time. I was unable to work and withdrew from life in general”. The project, Leak 04-13 (Bait Ones), was officially released in 2019, with Paul saying that a lot of the music was and would remain unfinished. Since then he’s shared only a double single: ‘Do You Love Her Now’/‘He’.

According to The Guardian’s Adrian Horton, Paul’s Coachella set on Saturday paradoxically brought with it an anxious sense of occasion but also familiar ground. Noting that it was difficult to hear the singer above the “magnetic discordance” of his glitchy funk and R&B, his “self-evidently brilliant music was vibey enough for the crowd” who “sang along to every track”.

Of course, a musician with one record and a couple of singles is likely to have a studious fanbase that knows all the songs. But it’s worth noting how much cross-Atlantic appeal Paul has had off the back of scant material and no gigs. “Diehards” got “louder and louder” as Paul’s confidence grew during the set, Variety’s Jeff Miller wrote in his review. The singer’s “shyness teetered between earnest and too unpolished but the talent and promise is definitely there.”

With both Ocean and Paul taking up much of the conversation over the weekend, it appears that scarcity and evasiveness has a place in today’s climate. It’s a market where acts can more easily connect with fans over social media and where “surprise” drops and a prolific output (see Taylor Swift, Drake) is often celebrated. Just don’t expect Ocean or Paul to follow those trends.

Frank Ocean played [via] – set one:
‘Novacane’ (new version)
‘Come On World, You Can’t Go!’ (live debut)
‘Crack Rock’
‘Impietas / Deathwish (ASR)’ (live debut)
‘Bad Religion’
‘White Ferrari’ (live debut, new version)
‘Florida’ (live debut)
‘Pink + White’ (acoustic)
‘Solo’ (new version)
‘Solo (Reprise)’
‘Chanel’ (Sango remix)

DJ Crystal Mess interlude – set two:
‘Lost’ (interpolated with ‘Born Slippy (Nuxx)’ by Underworld; Jersey Club remix)
‘Slide’ (Jersey Club remix)
‘In Ha Mood’ (Ice Spice song)
‘Provider’ (Jersey Club remix)
‘In My Room’ (Jersey Club remix)

Frank Ocean – set three:
‘No Church in the Wild / Pyramids mashup with ‘Godspeed’ (live debut)
‘Wise Man’ (new version)
‘Night Life’ (Aretha Franklin cover)
‘Self Control’ (acoustic)
‘Nights’ (mixed with Sango remix)
‘At Your Best (You Are Love)’ (The Isley Brothers cover) (live debut)

Jai Paul played [via]:
‘Higher Res’ (Big Boi cover)
‘Crush’ (Jennifer Paige cover)
‘So Long’ (new song)
‘All Night’
‘Do You Love Her Now’
‘Str8 Outta Mumbai’