The Real Ones: An Annotated Exploration of ‘Moonlight’ via Frank Ocean’s “Nikes”

The parallels between two of 2016's most outstanding works of art, and what they might mean for the rest of the year to come.

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Pour up for A$AP (rest in peace)/ RIP Pimp C (rest in peace)

To intentionally jarring effect, Ocean employs three distinct, competing voices on “Nikes.” One of these disassociating intonations is noticeably pitched down, perhaps revealing a conflicted, interrupting conscience; another is pitched up, signifying a heightened, potentially effeminate quality; and a third is unadulterated, “normal,” and decidedly masculine. This creative choice plays in tandem with the decision to spell the album’s title as the feminine Blonde in print, but to stylize it as the male Blond on its artwork. Similarly, it could also be likened to his alternating singing and rapping on the track in question. Could these gestures be a nod to Frank Ocean’s bi-curiosity? To the female groupies and the male lover he croons about here?

This representation of tangled personalities mirrors Moonlight’s triptych structure and the three identities Chiron wrestles with: “Little”(Alex R. Hibbert), the perceptive child becoming aware of gender performativity and discrimination; “Chiron”(Ashton Sanders), the misunderstood adolescent reluctantly embracing his innate desires (hence his real name, not a moniker); and “Black” (Trevante Rhodes), the repressed, outwardly hyper-masculine adult paralyzed by institutional coding.

Equally noteworthy at this intersection are the victims of lean overdoses Frank Ocean mourns in the first verse, especially given the slowed vocals that follow the utterance of their names. The vocal pitching or “screwing” technique Ocean experiments with here was initially popularized by Houston legend DJ Screw, who died by overdosing on the same “pink-gold lemonades” that claimed the abovementioned victims, A$AP Yams and Pimp C.

Moonlight’s flawlessly curated and geographically apt soundtrack was also heavily influenced by this culture (and southern rap in general). Jenkins’s use of chopped and screwed versions of Jidenna’s “Classic Man” and Erykah Badu’s “Tyrone,” as well as Goodie Mob’s “Cell Therapy,” captures the regional mood impeccably. The vibe is kept so consistent that even segments of Nicholas Britell’s Arvo Pärt-inspired original score are given the screwed treatment. Much like Moonlight’s hazy sonic palette and impressionistic cinematography, Om’Mas Keith’s woozy production and lethargic percussion give “Nikes” a vulnerable, memory-like texture.

That my little cousin, he got a little trade/ His girl keep the scales, a little mermaid/ We out by the pool, some little mermaids/ Me and them gel/ Like Twigs with them bangs/ Now that’s a real mermaid/ You been holding your breath/ Weighted down

Both Frank Ocean and Chiron are accustomed to the drug trade. Applying a brilliant metaphor, Ocean links scales to the anatomy of sea creatures, while simultaneously associating them with the weighing and storage of narcotics. Though the neighborhood kingpin is not Chiron’s cousin, these rhymes are reminiscent of his father figure, Juan — portrayed by Mahershala Ali in a career-best turn — and his girlfriend, Janelle Monáe’s Teresa. Teresa, who is never explicitly involved with Juan’s dealings, continues to endure courageously while benefiting from the operation well after Juan’s haunting death. Caught between the two worlds of losing Juan and nurturing Chiron, she adjusts resiliently to sea and air — “a real mermaid,” if you will.

Conversely, symbolically speaking, Chiron has been holding his breath, “weighted down” in his unforgiving adolescence. Akin to the naked woman trapped inside a fish tank in Tyrone Lebon’s video treatment for “Nikes,” Chiron is a teenager without a safe haven. Apart from Juan and Teresa’s generosity, there’s no escape. All spheres of life fail him. He’s bullied for his mannerisms and tight clothes at school, neglected by his drug-addled mother, Paula (Naomie Harris), and, ultimately, imprisoned by the code of Liberty City’s streets. Worst of all, he feels like an alien in his own skin. “Sorry,” he murmurs to his only friend, Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), after engaging him in sexual contact.

Chiron’s characterization is further enriched by Jenkins’s clever incorporation of Greek mythology. According to legend, the perpetually-wounded Chiron, son of titan Cronus, was forsaken by his nymph mother (i.e. Paula) due to his centauric guise, and adopted by Artemis and Apollo (i.e. Teresa and Juan). As the child of a god, however, Chiron was more reserved and sensitive than other centaurs. A categorical anomaly, he was an outcast in every realm.

The double meaning behind Frank Ocean’s repetition of Nike(s) in the song’s chorus is analogous to Moonlight’s use of Greek lore. The first time around, he sings, “These bitches want Nikes/ They looking for a check,” obviously referring to the brand giant and the materialistic values it promotes. But the second time, Ocean switches to, “All you want is Nikes/ But the real ones.” In this instance, he seems to be denoting the search for the winged goddess of victory, as substantiated by her presence in the single’s video.

In Greek mythology, the celestial Nike flew across war zones in her chariot, showering winners with praise and declaring them triumphant. The parable corresponds fittingly to Chiron’s own quest for “real” personal glory, which remains forever one step ahead of his grasp. For all the worldly possessions he’s attained as grown-up “Black,” Chiron yearns for the acceptance and basic human connection that elude him. Though he briefly reunites with both his rehab-committed mother and the far-flung Kevin (played later in life by André Holland), neither approve of his illegitimate trapping lifestyle. “That’s not you,” they both assert, identically. A recurring image from the “Nikes” video — one of black bodies lying on money, with cash also covering their reproductive organs — echoes this impotence.