Have you ever listened to a Frank Ocean song and thought to yourself, “I could do that”? If you’re anywhere close to being a sane person, the answer is most definitely “no. Absolutely not! Never!”
But as we continue to learn, celebrities are not sane. And as photos of this hat irrevocably prove, Justin Bieber is one of the least sane of all of them. Little surprise, then, to see him leading the pack of musicians currently producing covers of Ocean’s “Thinkin Bout You,” one of the standout cuts from last year’s acclaimed channel ORANGE.
On the surface, this makes sense. “Thinkin Bout You” is a pop song that also carries connotations of coolness thanks to Ocean’s origins as a member of weird rap collective Odd Future. Perfect song to cover, right? Wrong. Here’s the bad news for Bieber and everyone else: “Thinkin Bout You” only works because of Ocean’s unique attributes. I’m specifically thinking about his falsetto on “do you not think so far…AHEAD??” and the talk-rap he uses to start out the song. Then, of course, there's the insane level of production on the song (and the album in general).
Ocean is better than the sum of his parts. His music is beautiful because it comes from a place of pain and insight. Your heart aches along with him. What’s obvious from these shitty covers is that anything less than this winning combination just isn’t enough to pull off his songs the way he does.
1. Jonas Brothers: Yes, the Jonas Brothers are still around! My diabetes buddy (diabuddy!) Nick and his brothers haven’t released a new album in a few years, but they did appear on Ryan Seacrest’s radio show (?) to turn “Thinkin Bout You” into the kind of acoustic come-on a preteen girl would love, in the process washing away all the pain and making a beautiful song unbearably bland. I can barely listen to this. If you needed any more proof that Frank Ocean’s voice is far superior to theirs, we now have a side-by-side comparison that serves as a reminder about why the Jonas Brothers haven’t released new music in years.
2. Justin Bieber and Jaden Smith: Here is the other reason that Jonas Brothers haven’t released music in years. Their posters’ place on the walls of preteen girls has been usurped by Justin Bieber and his hat. Too bad he isn’t any better at covering Frank Ocean than they are. I honestly don’t know why this song exists. Bieber sounds like he isn’t even trying as he slurs his way half-asleep through the first verse and chorus. Not only that, but in the middle of the song there’s a Jaden Smith rap verse! Yes, you read that correctly. Because THAT’S what this Frank Ocean song was missing: a rap verse from Will Smith’s son! Word to the wise, Biebs: If this song needed a rap verse, there are several all-time greats on Ocean’s speed dial that could have contributed.
3. ZZ Ward: Give ZZ Ward credit. The R&B songstress actually gives “Thinkin Bout You” a credible go. The acoustic strumming are a credible parallel to the orchestral swells that start off the original, and her high pitches come close to conveying the emotional turmoil that Ocean’s do. But as she herself explains to the AV Club, this song already feels like a “classic.” It is irrevocably stamped with Ocean’s specific aesthetic and backstory. Its use of male pronouns is partly why Ocean decided to write a letter about his sexuality prior to the release of channel ORANGE. Taking that personality away ends up removing some of its power as well.
These songs provide an interesting case study about musical covers. I’m usually a big fan of cool or interesting covers (I even subscribe to a subreddit focused on covers) — check out Trampled by Turtles covering “Rebellion (Lies)” or Dirty Projectors take on Usher’s “Climax.”
But these versions don’t add anything to the song they’re covering. Frank Ocean used to be a songwriter for pop stars like John Legend and Beyonce, but his songs are much more than bland products off the pop-industrial complex's supply line. Take away his unique personality, history and amazing production skills, and you have some seriously unlistenable shit.