[UPDATE JULY 10, 2012: CLICK FOR A REVIEW OF CHANNEL ORANGE, FRANK OCEAN'S MAJOR LABEL DEBUT]
Pop culture is a paradox, obsessed with novelty yet often nostalgic for the past. On his infectious debut Nostalgia ULTRA, singer Frank Ocean is ultra-nostalgic for classic cars, mixtapes on cassette, videogames, Kubrick films, and above all, pop music of the last 40 years: from The Eagles to MGMT. He’s even nostalgic about Eden, where Adam and Eve discovered the joy of sex.
The 23-year-old Ocean is the oldest member of the LA hip-hop collective Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All. After he signed to Def Jam Records last year and the label sidelined him, Ocean decided in February to post his album on Tumblr for free download. He’s neither the first nor the last artist to give the music industry a virtual middle finger (or perhaps a –!—, if you speak emoticon).
Frank Ocean, Songs For Women
Nostalgia ULTRA is a collection of slow jams and dance grooves, with achy soul singing and raps over rock harmonies and electronic beats. Ocean not only samples music but also steals melodies, titles, and sometimes whole songs. “Strawberry Swing” updates the Coldplay song from Viva La Vida with lyrics about a childhood romance and visions of a nuclear apocalypse. Before Ocean enters on “There Will Be Tears,” we hear a full minute of the original song by British R&B artist Mr. Hudson. “American Wedding” reworks “Hotel California” as an interfaith parable that includes the original 90-second guitar solo (for better or worse). The album closer, “Nature Feels,” reprises the MGMT booty song “Electric Feel” as, well, another booty song. Furthermore, the album is filled with familiar sound effects. Ringing alarm clock? Check. Video game samples. Check. Ocean waves? Check.
While Ocean borrows much of his music from white artists, his vocal influences seem more African-American. On Nostalgia, he sings with smoothness and a delivery that recalls R&B stars R. Kelly, Drake, and Trey Songz. On “Songs for Women,” he cites his childhood musical heroes as Otis Redding, the Isley Brothers, and Marvin Gaye.
Frank Ocean, Swim Good
Beyond his vocal finesse and polish, what distinguishes Ocean from multitudes of musical borrowers is his self-awareness, the sense of irony that lurks beneath his surface earnestness. Nostalgia, ULTRA is framed by the sounds of a cassette player that stops, starts, and rewinds, a meta-commentary on the enduring art of the mixtape. On “Songs for Women” Ocean bemoans how auto-tune and pitch-correction robs music of its emotion, yet soaks his voice in that same technology throughout the album. In “Swim Good,” he says “I’ve got some pretty good beats on this 808,” a reference to the Roland TR-808 Rhythm Composer, a drum machine used by hip-hop artists in the 80s and lionized by Kanye West on his album 808s and Heartbreak. And the interlude “Bitches Talking” samples Radiohead’s “Optimism” before a woman stops the tape and mocks the music. Whether or not Ocean digs Radiohead, he gets that not everyone worships indie rock’s sacred cow.
In classic hip-hop mode, Nostalgia has songs about sex and drugs and enough F-Bombs and N-bombs to earn its Parental Advisory label. “Nature Feels” opens with the pick-up line: “I’ve been meaning to fuck you in the garden.” But overall the album centers on themes of heartbreak, regret, and existential malaise. In “Swim Good,” he fantasizes about driving his Lincoln Town Car into the ocean (natch) “to swim from something bigger than me.” And Ocean hardly glorifies the life of bitches and hoes, bongs and lines. If anything, he seems like a guy in search of purity. On “Novacane,” [sic] Ocean blames an addiction on a dental student slash stripper and bemoans his subsequent emotional numbness: “Pretty girls involved with me/Making pretty love to me/Pretty/Pretty pity/I can’t feel a thing.”
Frank Ocean, Novacane
On the whole, Nostalgia implies that there’s nothing new under the sun. Yet for all his reverence for the past, Ocean confidently adds his own musical stamp. After the last notes of “Hotel California” fade, he sings, a cappella: “These niggaz can’t do nothing/I can’t do.” Ultimately, this successful collision of cultures suggests that pop music is headed for an odd, yet familiar, future.