Frank Ocean is a 23-year-old singing sweetheart ,New Orleans-born, Beverly Hills-based singer who's in the gleefully hedonistic hip-hop collective Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All. Frank Ocean is also known as Christopher "Lonny" Breaux, a songwriter who has helped pen tracks for Justin Bieber, John Legend, and Brandy over the last few years. He's the latest example of why the major label system is crumbling at the knees of Twitter and Tumblr, too. After getting signed to Island Def Jam about a year ago, the label proceeded to ignore him.Until February 16, that is. That's when Ocean decided to give away his debut album, Nostalgia, Ultra, for free on his Tumblr.
Venting about his decision to drop the record his own way, he took to Twitter on March 1: "i. did. this. not ISLAND DEF JAM. that's why you see no label logo on the artwork that I DID. guess its my fault for trusting my dumbass lawyer and signing my career over to a failing company. **** Def Jam & any company that goes the length of signing a kid with dreams & talent w/ no intention of following through. **** em. now back to my day. i want some oatmeal and toast. brunch swag."
The mini-rant sums up this singer's demeanor well-- openly passionate and heartfelt, but also attractively off-center and humble. Nostalgia, Ultra finds Ocean singing over a mix of original pop-leaning R&B beats courtesy of big-ticket producers like Tricky Stewart (Rihanna's "Umbrella", Beyonce's "Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)") and Midi Mafia (50 Cent's "21 Questions", Justin Bieber's "Down to Earth") as well as some eclectic remakes of songs including Coldplay's underrated 2009 single "Strawberry Swing", MGMT's "Electric Feel", and, most surprisingly, the Eagles' "Hotel California". Ocean's experience within the major-label hit machine comes through-- his casually hook-y voice is akin to Usher or Jamie Foxx's, and at least three of the album's songs could (and should) slot in comfortably on a R&B or even Top 40 radio station near you any day now. There are distinct elements of Drake's melancholic paranoia and The-Dream's high melodrama, too.
But there's also a heady surreality surrounding Nostalgia, Ultra that makes it unique. The cover-- showing a bright orange 1980s BMW (Ocean's "dream car") hidden in plain sight amidst lush greenery-- is perfectly indicative of what's inside.
The record is held together by tiny interludes named after 1990s video games in which the unmistakable sounds of a cassette player rewinding, fast-forwarding, and stopping are heard. The old-school touch lends Nostalgia, Ultra the feel of a personal, friend-to-friend mixtape rather than one made by a name-dropping hip-hop DJ. The impressionistic, fingerprint details don't stop there. On the brief segue "*****es Talkin'", a loving snippet of Radiohead's "Optimistic" is heard while Ocean sincerely laments how "all *****es want is Jodeci, what the ****?"-- not exactly the type of sentiment you'd expect to hear on any sort of R&B album.
Meanwhile, Nicole Kidman's adulterous bedroom soliloquy from Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut can be heard underneath the murderous "Lovecrimes", adding a sense of manic dread. The film is once again referenced on the nightmarish, Stewart-produced "Novacane", which has Ocean losing his senses in the company of a wannabe dentist/porn star he met at Coachella. And if that sounds kind of ridiculous, that's probably the point; the atmospheric track almost reads like a knowing parody of Kid Cudi's fame-as-drug diatribes. The shout outs to Kubrick's mysterious and lusty final masterpiece aren't just artsy braggadocio-- they make sense within Ocean's trickily complex world, too. Like on brooding highlight "Swim Good", where he steers his Lincoln Town Car straight into California's crashing waves. "I'm about to drive in the ocean," he sings, heart-battered. "I'ma try to swim from something bigger than me." He lightens up on the self-reflexive pop winner "Songs for Women" and the MGMT-sampling Garden of Eden **** ode "Nature Feels", but, no matter the mood, this songwriter is always quick to add fine particulars that make his songs his songs.