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The Subtle Power Of Memory In Frank Ocean’s Music

Notes on how his recent releases play with short- and long-term meaning

In the last few years, I've realistically considered getting Frank Ocean lyrics tattooed on my skin more than once. “Voodoo,” a one-off track that he posted to his Tumblr in 2012, does it for me. At just over 90 seconds, somehow the song covers so much ground. "Remember when all I had was my mother?" he sings in his cozy tenor, taking me back to the Houston townhome where I spent a considerable amount of my adolescent years. It's a prime example of Ocean's distinctive technique as a songwriter: His best songs, like "Voodoo," disrupt the flow of linear time by prompting us to dive deep into our own memories and feel something indelibly real.

Of course, just about all recorded music — outside of the spontaneous dialogues in jazz joints, jukes, and freestyle ciphers — speaks the language of memory. Artists sing, strum, wail, and rap their archived emotional states, real or imagined, and listeners attach their own lived experiences to those songs, creating a kind of collective consciousness. A song about some talented stranger's love or homesickness ends up being about where you, the listener, stand in relation to those feelings, whether right now or in your past.

Thinking about music as a nonlinear memory language raises some fascinating parallels to the ways in which humans perceive and capture experiences. For decades, many neuroscientists believed that our brains slowly transfer short-term memory neurons called engrams from the hippocampus to the prefrontal cortex, where they eventually become long-term memories. But a recent study conducted by neuroscientists at Saitama's RIKEN-MIT Center for Neural Circuit Genetics suggested that this is inaccurate, and that in fact our brains archive short-term and long-term memories simultaneously. While scientists plan to use these results to research better treatments for memory-related illnesses, the study also speaks to the ways in which our experience of music uncover memories buried under layers of protective subconsciousness.

The music we gravitate toward tells a story based on a lineage of experiences and symbolisms, and this is particularly apparent in Frank Ocean's case. Along with the wealth of personal narratives found in his albums Channel Orange and last year’s electro-soul dual release, Endless/Blonde, several of Ocean’s recent singles brilliantly portray the instant-snapshot interplay of short-term and long-term memories.

The catchy, summery Calvin Harris single "Slide" commits itself to memory as soon as you hear it — it's easy to imagine the mnemonic rhapsodes who preserved Homer's Odyssey for generations recreating its joyous bump and passing it along with ease (at least until you get to Offset’s acrobatic verse). Of all his post-Blonde singles, “Slide” is the most superficial, opening with lyrics about copping a pretentious art piece in a case of poorly planned retail therapy. Still, Ocean’s verse is stocked to the brim with tender, vivid imagery. The couplet that goes, "Wrist on a wrist, a link of charms, yeah / Laying, we’re still a link apart” ties an immediate short-term memory back to older memories of a longtime lover whose distance is felt most acutely and ironically during quiet, intimate moments. After a cute quip about blond hair dye — which, in some ways, can be read as a fast-forward from that initial story to Frank’s present — he speaks in the now, wondering what lesson to take from his past experiences: “If we could see in 20 twin / Twice we could see it till the end.”

On "Chanel," released a couple of weeks after "Slide," Ocean's imagined memory bounces off more than one subject — most notably, a guy who’s “pretty like a girl” but “got fight stories to tell” and a discriminatory police officer (“12 treat a n***a like he 12”). These are quick-paced, easily missable temporal leaps that are grounded in Frank’s knowledge of feeling. The femme-presenting lover he mentions in the song's opening lines has, over time, shown himself to Frank as someone who's not to be trifled with; "fight stories" set in the past are informing Frank's present. And while others might see this partner in terms of socially constructed gender roles, any such ideas on Frank's part seem to have been negated by time, trust, and experience.

The same can’t be said about the police officer Frank mentions a few lines later. The only rapport built between these two is one based on racist infantilizing — which, inherently, speaks to the age-defying, collective long-term memory of American slavery and Jim Crow–era discrimination. In the short-term present, Frank is bold, speaking back to the cop through his song (perhaps responding in ways that he wishes he could have in the moment, if there hadn't been so much historical memory working against him). “How you lookin’ up to me and talkin' down?” he chides, going on to explain why this long-term history doesn’t necessarily apply to an artist of his status: “Can’t you see I am the big man? / God-level, I am the 'I am.'”

On his most recent song, "Lens," Ocean invokes an even broader, ancestral memory bank, speaking to the ways in which perspectives, traumas, and knowledge may be passed from one generation to another. Throughout the song, Frank asserts that the outlook of his people is relayed through blood, and that inheritance goes beyond time: “No ‘whens,’ call it timeless / No ends, cause you’re timeless.” Studies have suggested that individual psychological trauma can be genetically transmitted, so why not consider the ways in which deep memories baked into the human subconscious can do the same, at least metaphorically?

There's an assumption in "Lens" that our ancestors would see the world similarly to the way we do, that they’re concerned with a similar set of earthly problems: of lust (”Spirits watch me, pants down / Can’t be ’barrassed of it”), of dependence (”Weed smoke in the sky, picture what I’m realizing / Got some sins on me"), and of disillusionment ("Real life drowned by the weekend”). Frank seems to be suggesting that those who are long gone understand the pressures of the now because they share similar lenses. The implication is that our common memories, whether conscious or subconscious, are written into the human blueprint. When Frank runs through a list of artistic and spiritual touchstones, we can hear the calm that comes from shared memories and experiences: "Lionel got a lens, Janet got a lens / Matthew got a lens on me right now / Cleve got a lens, Kevin got a lens / Know I got some sins on me right now.” He knows those sins don’t make him evil, they simply make him human.

I don’t think of the first home I lived in very often, especially without cause. When I do, it is to recall how my brother helped establish my love for natural science, urging me to memorize a bound encyclopedia of mammals every weekday afternoon. It’s the powder-blue Fisher-Price xylophone set that gave life to my love for rhythm and twinkle. It’s the vase filled with outstretched faux-flowers that I’d high-five as I sprinted up and down the hallways of my home, like an audience member congratulating me for finishing first in a race against myself. I remember my childhood home in symbols that ripple across my life today. It’s within those walls that I learned the sound and feel of empathy, opening me up to others' memories, musical and otherwise. Frank Ocean knows that if we sing our songs in a key of memory, perhaps they can awaken something lost, broken, or unintentionally forgotten within and between us, too.