Frank Ocean released Blonde seven years ago on August 20th, 2016. “Self Control” is track seven.
Back in February, I was freezing and huddled around a fire, inches of snow beneath my feet. We were camping near the Grand Canyon and worn out for the night, letting our portable speaker’s music fill in the conversation blanks. Someone handed me the phone to queue a song. I chose Frank Ocean’s “Self Control.”
For a few minutes, we sat there in silence, roasting marshmallows as Ocean longed into the starry night, his voice accompanied by only the softened padding of distant elk and the crackling of the campfire. The fire’s ashes would dust my puffer jacket sleeves gray by the end of the trip, the smoke saturating itself into synthetic down.
Time has flown since then, as it always does, and I’ve found myself in August, in a new city, working a new job. By now we’ve reached the dog days – when it’s too hot to do anything but soak in reflective pools of memory. Summer’s imminent end is speckled in every sunset. I move through its golden hue as if I’m wading through amber; move too slowly and I might be trapped in this moment forever.
Some days when the sun goes down and the night’s muggy air sits on my shoulders, heavy as a phantom embrace, I find myself lying down alone in my neighborhood park and listening to “Self Control.”
Poolside convo, about your summer last night
Against the murmured chirping of birds, Ocean’s pitched-up vocals set the scene, and the swaying seventh chords of Alex G’s electric guitar loiter in shortly after. Back in his unaltered voice, Ocean begins to tell a story, one that we know all too well: Two people meet. They fall in love. It doesn’t work out. He spends his nights wishing it did.
Wish I was there, wish we’d grown up on the same advice
and our time was right
Ocean is well-versed in the language of longing, and “Self Control” might be his finest musical prose on the feeling. It’s one of the few songs that makes me tear up as soon as I hear the opening chords. Within it, Ocean is as open as a freshly-picked wound, revisiting a past, despite the pain it brings him. He’s a lone man in his apartment at night, singing to himself. We’re just passerbys on the city streets below, who happen to tilt our heads up, observing, through window panes, a vulnerability so raw it almost feels like a violation to keep staring. Yet, we still do.
And oh, is he vulnerable. In his singing, he enunciates each word, savoring it, as if he were losing a piece of the memory by just speaking it out aloud. Throughout the song, Ocean sways between the past and present (“You cut your hair but you used to live a blonded life”) and feigns indifference as he begs his former flame to remember him, even with a new lover (Keep a place for me, for me/ I’ll sleep between y’all, it’s nothing).
Ultimately, he lands on a half-hearted acceptance, still unable to keep himself from asking for just a bit more, however futile his chances (I, I, I know you gotta leave, leave, leave/ Take down some summertime/ Give up, just tonight, ‘night, ‘night).
In a song titled “Self Control,” it’s only apt that Ocean betrays his own title. Every facet of the track speaks to the relentless abandon we find ourselves in when heartbroken. The guitar sways just outside of its chords’ boundaries with Alex G’s melodic improvisations, and when Ocean sings the line about losing his self control, his voice cracks. A string section swells as he reaches the outro, stirring waves of melancholy that catch even casual listeners off-guard, submerging them in their turbulent flow. During the outro’s final chorus, his cries are layered beneath his own harmonies, cries that he distorts into synthesized chiptune, the trilling vocals crumbling apart like a wash of whitewater. Within this outro, he lets out the smallest of whimpers. The music pauses for the briefest moment, as if Ocean needs to catch his breath before continuing.
With “Self Control,” Ocean does not say anything we don’t know: People, relationships – love, doesn’t always work out. We curse timing, we curse circumstance, we curse the differing ways our mothers raised us. But Ocean chronicles his own truths with such sincerity that by the end of the song, you’d think you were the one who got your heart broken at the end of the summer. He captures every aching detail, from the lingering at the doorstep to the tearful dances, and transcends it into song, giving it back to us in a way that lets us hear the beauty in it all.
“Self Control” is one of my favorite songs, but I try not to play it too often – I worry about burning the song out until all that’s left are its embers. Still, I’m always taken aback by how nostalgic it makes me feel. It isn’t just the reminiscing on failed romances that stings, but remembering the person I was the last time I listened to the song. From sitting alone in my second-year dorm bathroom at 1 AM, missing a boy, to feeling content in the middle of the woods with friends, the song has soundtracked some strong memories.
Now it’s the end of August, inhabiting that fleeting, hazy space where “Self Control” exists. There’s a tropical storm today so I spend it in my subleased bedroom, listening to Blonde while packing up the life I’ve lived for the past three months. I wonder how soon I’ll begin to romanticize this point in time — I think I secretly like it when a moment ends, so I can start missing it again. In the closet, I pull out that puffer jacket, a jacket I haven’t worn since I last went camping. It has been months since that night the campfire burned. It is August and my jacket still smells of smoke.