A Literary Analysis of Frank Ocean’s “Self Control”
Christopher Edwin Breaux, better known as Frank Ocean, is a storyteller before all else. His songs often tell an intricate tale in a matter of minutes. On the artist’s sophomore studio album Blonde, he uses his narrative ability to reflect on his own life. On one track in particular, “Self Control,” he sings of love, loss, and bad timing. The songwriter uses literary devices such as juxtaposition and flashback to weave a plot sad enough to leave listeners winded. In this essay, we will unpack “Self Control” and analyze the methods Ocean used to craft one of the most heartbreaking ballads in music’s recent history.
So what makes this song so goddamn sad?
Before diving into our analysis of Frank Ocean’s “Self Control,” there is something that must be understood. Throughout “Self Control” – and the rest of Blonde – Ocean transitions between his normal voice and altered, high-pitched voices. The varied voices are more than an artistic choice; in the world of Blonde, different voices represent different perspectives. Switching voices can indicate anything from an altered emotional state to a different point in time; in “Self Control,” varied voices are used to represent the latter. The high-pitched voice represents a younger Frank, acting as a flashback that thrusts the song into the past with each appearance. To put it plainly, the song’s chronology is not linear. “Self Control’s” use of pitch shifting allows listeners to follow the song’s timeline as it jumps from past to present and back again, something imperative for understanding “Self Control” and the depth of its sadness.
The song begins in the past, though how far exactly in the past is unknown. A high-pitched voice opens the song with the line, “Poolside convo about your summer last night.” Ocean begins to spin his tale of lost love and wrong timing with these seven words. Frank sits beside a pool with his love interest, who tells him about his summer. The lyric implies that they spent the season apart, as discussion would be pointless had they been together. The poolside scene continues as the young Ocean asks, “Could I make you shy on the last night... / Could we make it in? Do we have time?” The answer to these questions must be no, no single night is enough time to build a relationship, but Ocean poses the question regardless. Like a kid turning to dad after mom says no, Frank searches for a different answer than the one he’s found. He wants his lover to tell him there’s enough time, despite knowing this to be untrue. The young Ocean sitting beside a pool would rather believe a reassuring lie than face the somber reality.
Ocean’s unaltered voice transports listeners to the present day as “Self Control” arrives at its first verse. Time has passed, likely years, but Frank still harbors feelings for his extinguished flame, as is revealed in the verse’s opening line, “I’ll be the boyfriend in your wet dreams tonight.” Frank’s offer applies only to “wet dreams” because the two can only see each other while sleeping. Frank’s feelings and the pair’s time dilemma are unchanged by year separating them from the pool. However, his lover has changed since this night, a fact conveyed later in the verse: “You cut your hair but you used to live a blonded life.” Blonde literally and figuratively represents the individual’s change. Literally, his former lover’s hair used to be blonde, presumably when the two were together. On the other hand, blonde commonly symbolizes youth, innocence, and naivety, traits Frank likely saw in his lover all those years ago. Frank longs for the blonde that he fell in love with, someone who no longer exists. Ocean attempts to change the past with sheer willpower, wishing that he and his lover had “grown up on the same advice / and [their] time was right.” Frank’s desires are futile, but still he harbors them. Frank again finds himself desperate for the impossible, a hopelessness that adds to his heartbreak.
The voice alteration from the intro reappears for the chorus. Austin Feinstein sings the chorus, his voice pitched up to indicate a flashback. Though the words don’t come from Ocean’s mouth, they come from his past. The pitch alteration transforms Feinstein into Frank of the poolside past. The pitched-up voice sings, “Keep a place for me... / I'll sleep between y'all, it's nothing.” The young Ocean makes a desperate plea, longing for any place in his lover’s life—even if it means inserting himself into the old flame’s new relationship. After admitting that he’ll settle for just about anything, Frank tries to act nonchalant by adding, “It’s no thing,” to the end of his plea. Despite his attempt to play cool, Ocean has made his most shameless display of desperation yet (though this title will be lost by the song’s end).
The song returns to the present for its second verse, where we find Ocean on a dancefloor. The verse begins with Ocean chirping, “Now and then you miss it, sounds make you cry / Some nights you dance with tears in your eyes.” Sadness and dancing are near opposites; happiness most often accompanies dance. But these expectations vanish when a song moves the still-grieving Frank to tears; the depth of his heartache makes him immune to the laws of dance. Ocean’s sadness can be felt even without an understanding of the song’s timeline. But the context allows the full weight of this emotion to be understood as something that the narrator has carried from pool to present.
The second half of this verse demands its own paragraph. This is where self control’s place within “Self Control” becomes clear. “I came to visit, ‘cause you see me like a UFO / That’s like never,” Ocean sings. He continues, “...’cause I made you use your self control / And you made me lose my self control.” Frank indicates that his loss of self control resulted from the self control he convinced his lover to use. The individuals’ abilities to practice restraint stand in stark contrast to one another, a juxtaposition that reveals a painful irony. Frank once found self control important enough to impose on his object of affection. But with Frank’s request comes fewer visits with his desired partner, and with fewer visits comes the loss of Ocean’s self control. The abandonment of his long-held discipline likely prompted the desperation Frank feels for this person; a loss of control often inspires feelings of hopelessness. Ocean has now lost more than the years spent pining—he has lost a piece of himself, a piece that he falls apart without.
This is it; this is the big one. The second appearance of the chorus, “Keep a place for me / I’ll sleep between y’all, it’s no thing,” repeat. The words aren’t the important part here, we’ve already covered those. Once again, the pitch shifting tells the real story. The first time the chorus rolled around, Feinstein’s pitch was altered to denote coming from Ocean’s past perspective. This time around, the high-pitched voice hasn’t left, but another voice has been added. The unaltered voice of the present sings slightly louder than the past’s altered one, both perspectives equally hopeless in spite of their different vantage points in time. Simultaneously past and present, the brief segment provides a full account of the love affair. Frank’s poolside desperation has persisted over the years; time has not changed anything but the weight of his burden. The altered voice fades out after the chorus’s first line, abandoning the past and advancing. Listeners effectively watch Frank’s feelings move through time, never changing. Ocean compresses the lengthy affair into merely two lines; his desperation of the past fades into the present in a seconds-long recap of the tragedy. The years have not helped Frank move on; in fact, they may have done the opposite.
Now that the truth has been revealed, the remainder of the song serves as Ocean’s open and honest final bid for the individual of interest’s heart. After the chorus comes to a close, an ultra-distorted voice enters for the bridge. The pitch has been warped to such a degree that deciphering it requires acute scrutiny. A passive listening may leave one believing that it was nothing but an abstract soprano riff. With a focused ear, the repetition of a previous scene can be heard. The piercing voice sings, “Sometimes you'll miss it / And the sound will make you cry / And some nights you're dancing / With tears in your eyes.” Once again listeners find Frank brought to tears while dancing, but when this occurred is unclear, as the perspective represented by the distortion cannot be determined. The critical perspectives, poolside and present Frank, already have designated alterations. A concrete answer can’t be verified, but this doesn’t undermine the emotion invoked by the mystery voice. The warped voice wails above the mellow plucking of guitar strings and humming of what sounds like a violin or cello. The whining voice and delicate instruments blend together to create something that feels otherworldly, comparable to a siren song for its alluring but haunting sound. For the first time in “Self Control,” the use of pitch shifting adds to the song’s emotional impact rather than its plot. Whether the bridge takes place in the past, present, or future, listeners can feel the heartache and sorrow conveyed through the warped voice.
Ocean delivers a grand final plea in the outro of “Self Control.” His unaltered voice swells as he sings to his lost love: “I, I, I know you gotta leave... / Take down some summer time / Give us, just tonight... / I, I, I know you got someone comin' / You're spittin' game, know you got it.” Frank once again disregards the obstacles blocking his path (such as the pair’s lack of time or his partner’s new partner), offering to settle for just one night. This is reminiscent of the song’s intro, when Frank asks his lover if their one night will be enough time (and as well know now, it was not). However, Ocean is no longer the young man beside the pool who naively hoped that he could save their relationship with only one night to do so. Frank has lost this innocence by the time he delivers his last appeal; he now knows that strides cannot be made in one night, but desperately wants the time anyway. The plea repeats, even grander than the original. Frank’s vocals are layered on top of one another, bringing something like a church choir to mind. The stacked, choral-sounding vocals act as the song’s boombox-outside-a-window scene: an over-the-top gesture made when nothing is left to lose. Frank repeats his appeal one more time, returning to his singular voice. The song draws to a close and his voice fades, still full of longing and desperation.
Poor timing, desperation, and Ocean’s inability to let go of the unattainable mark the failed relationship chronicled in “Self Control.” Together these details paint the picture of a tragic relationship, doomed to fail but sought after nonetheless. Not only could Romeo and Juliet relate to Ocean’s tale, but anyone who has pined for something out of reach. The agony expressed in “Self Control” often leads to the belief that it depicts an unrequited romance. But this is not the case, despite Ocean’s despair. In the interview already previously mentioned, the singer explained that the song “was written about who [he] was actually in a relationship with … we just couldn’t really relate. We weren’t on the same wavelength.” All the pain exhibited by Frank stems not from unreciprocated love, but differences of mindset and lifestyle that make the pair incompatible.