A Breakdown of the Powerful Cultural References in Frank Ocean’s “Nikes”

A breakdown of the references in Frank Ocean's new "Nikes" video.

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Complex Original

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Early Saturday morning, Frank Ocean quietly dropped “Nikes,” a five-minute song and accompanying video that many expect to be the single from his upcoming album. It was an experience. Kicking off with the “I got two versions,” line that Ocean referenced in his original Tumblr about the album, the footage cycles through Trina cameos, quips about Giuseppe Zanottis, and acknowledges the political environment that people of color currently live in. The entire video was directed by Tyrone Lebon who worked with the musician on his Calvin Klein campaign.

Here we break down some of the most significant parts of “Nikes.”

On the Fashion
With a title like “Nikes,” the track obviously makes a nod at fashion. Sure, Ocean uses the Nike to segue into a lyric about a gold digger (“These b*tches want Nike, this is a setup, they lookin’ for a check”), but that approach echoes one he took on Endless. In that project, he used Comme Des Garcons (which means “like boys”) for its literal meaning, likening the fluidity of feelings to men (“feelings come, feelings go comme des garcons”). “Nikes” eclipses that, pumping the track with a Balmain namedrop and a repeated refrain about Giuseppe Zanotti. “Tell these guys you wear Zanotti,” a chopped and screwed voice, likely Ocean’s, drones at one point. “You a hottie!”

The visual itself comes laced with custom designs by Olivier Rousteing, as well as a “Lover” hoodie by Bianca Chandon. Of it all, though, the Jenny Holzer’s “Abuse of Power” shirt that Frank wears while he torches himself seems to win out as the most poignant.

Screenshot from Frank Ocean's

On the Cameos
In what is thought to be a sign of respect, “Nikes” starts off with Frank Ocean giving love to a Miami record label. “”Shout out to the icon dynasty Slip-N-Slide Records,” he says, cutting to a few blurry shots of Trina, who was once signed to Slip-N-Slide. The clip is just the beginning of the cameos. It’s in the first verse that we get our glimpse of A$AP Rocky, inhaling smoke as respect to A$AP Yams, who died in 2015. In quick succession, a tribute was played to Pimp C and also Trayvon Martin, the latter punctuated with “that n*gga look just like me.”

The Trayvon Martin reference, particularly when bolstered with the Holzer scene, places Ocean amongst a growing group of musicians unafraid to talk about controversial topics like race relations in their work.  To finish off the track, though she doesn’t get any facetime in the project, Ocean tips his hat to the sex appeal of Amber Rose herself.

On The Aesthetic
“Nikes” is arguably Frank Ocean’s most visually queer work to date. And while that claim seems a delicate one to make, the use of a winged eyeliner and glitter (in a way that frankly looks like a pretty amazing make-up highlighter) supports it. As a standalone project, taken without Ocean himself coming out as bisexual and also nodding to LGBT icons like drag performer Crystal LaBeija in Endless, that might not seem significant. But in this particular course of events, it is.

In a nod to that sexuality, even with those cues, the NSFW parts of the film include glitterized bouncing butt cheek and blinding light emerging from between the legs of pantless women. That, interspliced with images of male and female strippers on poles wearing angel wings, and other nude bodies swimming, raises the sex appeal of the project’s content in a significant way. It's not often that we see such LGBT images in visuals from mainstream performers.

Endless the film and audio accompaniment was not the long-awaited follow-up to Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange. For what it's worth, neither is “Nikes”. But what "Nikes" accomplishes is to prove that over the extended break between projects Ocean has developed as an artist and is intent on bringing those developments to the table with whatever comes next.

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