Frank Ocean’s Coachella 2023 headline performance – the view from the crowd

The elusive star's supposed grand return quickly becomes a disappointment, marred by delays and setlist frustrations

It’s 10:05pm in the middle of the windy Californian desert and Frank Ocean is nowhere to be seen. The sprawl of people gathered in front of Coachella’s main stage for his headline performance have waited six years for him to take to the stage again, so what’s a few more minutes?

The minutes, though, slowly build up, with restless onlookers getting excited at the slightest change in front of them. When the moving red and blue lines on the stage’s big screens disappear 15 minutes after Ocean is due to begin his set, leaving it completely black – surely a sign that something is about to happen – those who were seated leap up, only to be left hanging for another 42 minutes.

Minutes before Ocean does finally appear, a troupe of people in matching outfits begin pacing in circles around the stage. They continue well into the first section of the set – their purpose or symbolism unclear. The audience around NME is unimpressed, but when the opening notes of ‘Novacane’  – the set’s opening song – ring out, it seems like all could be forgiven.


When the elusive Ocean is performing, he’s so sublime that he could probably have turned up even later and the crowd would still just about let it slide. But herein lies the problem with his set tonight – he doesn’t spend all that much of it doing what people want him to do. Sure, there’s a stunning version of ‘Bad Religion’ and a glitchy new take on ‘White Ferrari’, and some unexpected covers of Aretha Franklin’s ‘Night Life’ and Aaliyah’s ‘At Your Best (You Are Love)’. A mid-set “rave mix” from DJ CRYSTALLMESS is great fun too, mixing the likes of Underworld with Ice Spice.

But his biggest songs – like ‘Thinking ‘Bout You’ and ‘Pyramids’ – are MIA and, at times, he just gets up from his microphone and dances along to the likes of ‘Nikes’ and ‘Nights’. Perhaps if he played more than once in a blue moon, that would be slightly more excusable. But people have been listening to just the recorded versions of his music for years and have come to Coachella to see him perform them instead. “Why don’t you just sing?” one man yells in frustration at one point, fellow festival goers around him nodding their heads in agreement.

Early on in the show, Ocean tries to set expectations. “I wanna talk about why I’m here cos it’s not cos of a new album,” he explains. “Not that there’s not a new album, but there’s not right now.” Instead, he’s headlining this year in tribute to his younger brother Ryan Breaux, who died in a car crash in 2020. It’s a touching reason to undertake the performance, but still can’t placate the frustrated faithful in front of him.

Just when it seems like the star might be hitting his stride and about to give the people what they want, he walks off stage. Seconds later, he comes back and announces: “Guys, I’m being told it’s curfew, so that’s the end of the show. Thank you so much.” And with that, hopes for a triumphant return for Frank Ocean are extinguished for good.

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