Frank Ocean loves cars. In his 2016 magazine Boys Don’t Cry, he wrote a letter to his fans, where he states:
“How much of my life have I spent in a car? I wonder if I might die in one.”
A quick glance through his discography reveals references to cars peppered across albums, singles, videos and even album covers.
From the E30 M3 on the cover of his 2011 mixtape – Nostalgia, Ultra – to the Ueno Clinic McLaren F1 GTR in the videos for Nikes, I’ve always been intrigued by this particular aspect of his work, so I’m going to try and make some sense of it.
Starting with his early work, the cover of his 2011 mixtape Nostalgia Ultra features an Orange BMW E30 M3. Contrary to popular belief, this wasn’t actually Frank’s car at the time. In fact, the photo was uploaded to a random BMW forum. But it did mark the beginning of Frank’s public obsession with the E30, which would feature many times across the rest of his career.On the reference laden mixtape, the two tracks where he talks about cars are Swim Good and American Wedding. As he sings on Swim Good,
That's a pretty big trunk on my Lincoln town car, ain't it? Big enough to take these broken hearts and put 'em in it Now I'm drivin' 'round on the boulevard, trunk bleedin' Five more miles 'til the road runs out I'm about to drive in the ocean I'ma try to swim from somethin' bigger than me Kick off my shoes and swim good, and swim good Take off this suit and swim good, and swim good, good
The car in the video is a 1985 Lincoln Town Car Stretched Limousine. In fact, Lincoln Town cars are often used as hearses for carrying bodies. Here, the broken hearts are a metaphor for the emotional baggage he carries with him, or in the trunk of his car. The lyrics isn’t a metaphor for transformation, Frank literally plans to drive in the ocean so he will drown and commit suicide, in order to rid himself of said emotional baggage.
In American Wedding, in which famously interpolates The Eagles’ Hotel California, he talks about his Ford Mustang, which is about as American as cars get. The song’s follows the arc of an ill conceived wedding that lasted through a summer before divorce. In the first and second verse, Ocean sings,
After school she ran to me, jumped in my 5.0 Well, you can have my Mustang, that's all I've got in my name But Jesus Christ, don't break my heart
The car represents his heartbreak, going from being an object of happy memories to one that he had to give up entirely due to the outcomes of a typical American divorce.
A major theme on Channel Orange is Frank evoking luxury and glamour (Sweet Life, Lost). The cars of Channel Orange are status symbols and name drops. But they aren’t flexes on Frank’s part, they just exist within the world of the album.
On Super Rich Kids, featuring Earl Sweatshirt, however, he exposes the same decadent LA lifestyle, highlighting how a life full of material worth can never be fulfilling. The song is filled with references to luxury brands and drugs. He sings,
Too many joy rides in daddy’s jaguar Too many white lies and white lines Super rich kids with nothing but loose ends Super rich kids with nothing but fake friends
On Pyramids, a 10 minute epic that describes the relationship between a pimp and his prostitute, several extended metaphors referencing Cleopatra, pyramids, and strip clubs. It probably deserves a video of its own. Frank mentions,“Whip ain’t got no gas tank but it still got woodgrain”. Referring to the Tesla Model S, Frank bought the electric car in 2012. The luxurious car is electric therefore it doesn’t require a gas tank, but in context of the song, and this may be a reach, may also refer to an actual whip, mirroring the relationship between slave and master much like with pimp and sex worker.
Probably the most notable mentions of Ocean’s cars, both in meaning and volume, were on his critically acclaimed 2016 album, Blonde. The record’s insularity and spareness make it exactly the kind of music you’d drive to at night.Cars were a part of the making of Blonde as much as they appear in the lyrics. Frank talks about cruising the suburbs of Tokyo in RWB Porsche’s. Mobbing freeways with 4 project (BMW) m3s that he built with his friends. In taking 4 years to actually live a life before releasing this album, he created a masterpiece.
The cars featured in the video for Nikes are two McLaren F1 GTRs (one of which is a ‘Longtail’), Audi R8 LMP, and an Aston Martin DBR9.
While the cars in the video might serve as aesthetic background elements, they do not come off as gimmicky or corny. Frank name-checks the cars he’s owned, driven, and been driven in with an aficionado’s specificity, but the way he speaks about his time in them makes it clear that they are not mere status symbols.
On the 2nd song, “Ivy” he sings,
Safe in my rental like an armored truck back then We didn't give a fuck back thenI ain't a kid no more We'll never be those kids again We'd drive to Syd's, had the X6 back then.
Perhaps referring to his days spent with the Odd Future crew, as he was just becoming famous, cars serve as bookmarks for Frank’s memories, but they are also a place of refuge.
On track 9, Nights, he talks of times when fame was still just a fantasy,
In 1998 my family had that Acura oh the Legend, kept at least six discs in the changer Back when Boswell and Percy had it active Couple bishops in the city building mansions.
His ability to paint such a specific picture is probably his greatest gift as a songwriter, and this is another example of that.Here he is talking about his song writing;
“I guess I’m just inspired to tell stories in my life like times that I’ve enjoyed and that mean a lot to me. I often go back to ’em soon. When I’m making music, that’s really all you can draw from! You know, when your storytelling is your own experiences and memories and personal wisdom … and knowledge so when I pull from that place, it comes along with pictures. When I’m trying to make a song, even the form of it, or even the part that doesn’t have words, the parts that don’t have words, is still, you know, really trying to make a photograph out of something you can never see.”
Another example of that evocative songwriting is on Skyline To,
That's a pretty fucking fast year flew by That's a pretty long third gear in this car Glidin' on the five
Frank juxtaposes a “fast year” with a “long third gear” — he’s been with this person for a year and although the year went by quickly, the days seem to last forever. Cars with a manual transmission allow you to stay in 3rd gear for a long period of time.
Perhaps Frank’s most explicit reference to a car, White Ferrari, which is literally the name of the song, is also his most ambiguous.
“White Ferrari” starts with a physical ride, but the metaphor is fluid, and Frank uses it to recall past relationships, drugs, and reckless driving. It’s at once heartbreaking and fragile, as he sings,
Bad luck to talk on these rides Mind on the road, your dilated eyes Watch the clouds float, white Ferrari Had a good time Sixteen: How was I supposed to know anything?
Frank has tangible memories of other cars, but the White Ferrari stands for something unattainable, something that couldn’t last.
Perhaps most importantly for Frank, they are a means of expression.
On the album’s 9 minute closer, Futura Free, there are two references to cars:
Bugatti left some stretch marks on the free way I only got one four door Remember when I had that Lexus, naw Our friendship don't go back that far Tyler slept on my sofa yeah N****s go back that far
This is Frank, post fame, reflecting on his life. The first line is a way to show off, in a song where Frank claims Jay Z told him to act his net worth.The second line is him reminiscing about his relationships with his friends, highlighting how to person in question didn’t know him before the fame, like Tyler The Creator, Odd Future member and one of Frank’s best friend’s might. It’s also simultaneously a flex as he says he only owns one four door car now, unlike the Acuras and Lexus’s of his past. In the end, Frank reminds us that if he’s going to be famous, it’s going to be on his own terms.
In the post Blonde era, as Frank dropped singles on his BlondedRadio show, the references to cars were more traditional flexes, yet, each of them had their own Frank lyrical twist.
On Chanel he raps about his Tesla Model X,
I know you seen it driving itself No matte black on the ride 'cause it's stale But it's stealth
On Lens, it’s his McLaren that looks like it had his roof cut off –
“Top chopped down like blades came through the valley”
Frank’s ever-changing songwriting transforms the use of cars with each project. To summarize, on Nostalgia Ultra, Frank associated vehicles with heartbreak and suicide (American Wedding) & (Swim Good). In Channel Orange, vehicles were used as a status symbol as well as a sign of wealth (Super Rich Kids) & (Pyramids). In Blonde, cars serve as one of the most visceral, evocative forms of nostalgia. As he transitioned into rapping on his BlondedRadio tracks, he shows he can hold his own in the rap world, in his own way. Personally, I can’t wait for what’s next.