Music review: nostalgia, ULTRA by Frank Ocean

Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, known more commonly as unwieldy acronym OFWGKTA or simply Odd Future, have quickly risen from Los Angeles skate rats to an idolised rap collective. Releasing all their material absolutely free via their Tumblr blog, they’ve accrued a loyal following in no time, and now are renowned for their controversial, dark rap output and chaotic, kinetic live shows. Tyler, the Creator has taken to the big stage quickly and is the group’s de facto leader, but most gloss over its other members and output outside of the totemic street-rap they’ve become famous for.

Odd Future is actually composed of many members, and Frank Ocean is one of them. Signed to Island Def Jam records at the end of 2009, he’s written songs for John Legend and Brandy, but never got any traction with the label as a singer. Hooking up with OFWGKTA, he released his first solo record nostalgia, ULTRA for free on his website, from where you can still download it for nothing.

Ocean’s album, which he’s jestingly labelled ‘bluegrass’, is a hybrid piece, but one which reveals his songwriting credentials, smooth vocal delivery and ability to make RnB which doesn’t sound artificial. In an age where most RnB acts are auto-tuned into the next decade and blurt out meaningless lyrics, Ocean stands out: he can not only sing, but write catchy, hook-filled tracks without resorting to cliché.

Sprinkled amongst Ocean’s songs are short skits where he starts and stops a tape deck, at one point listening to Radiohead only to be mocked by the women he’s with, which seem like a fitting metaphor for nostalgia, ULTRA. Ocean can be conversational, witty, deep or funky and he sounds thoroughly accomplished throughout despite ‘changing the tape’ several times and switching styles at will.

The resonant melody of standout track ‘Strawberry Swing’ is beautifully balanced, Ocean’s affecting vocals nostalgically recalling the ghosts of a young relationship, and through ‘There Will Be Tears’ the vocal lines are wonderfully delivered. Jokingly making reference to Drake and Trey Songz in ‘Songs For Women’, the OFWGKTA associate shows his whimsical side, and it’s refreshing to hear an RnB singer not taking himself too seriously and having fun with a record.

The central thread that runs through nostalgia, ULTRA is one of self-doubt, however; ‘Novacaine’ is about self-medicating to get over a relationship, ‘Lovecrimes’ is a relaying of a romantic breakdown playing out over clips from Stanley Kubrick’s film Eyes Wide Shut, ‘Swim Good’ is a first-person debate about killing yourself and ‘American Wedding’ handles the complex but frank realities of divorce.

Lyrically, Ocean is able to elevate himself far above the overcrowded marketplace with a combination of earnestness, humour and intelligence. In ‘Songs For Women’, Ocean jokingly moans that “I could never play guitar like Van Halen/Never had no secret chords like Saint David”.

Yes, he’s making reference to the opening line of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ in an RnB track.

The soulful, pained lines in ‘There Will Be Tears’ of “they say you can’t miss what you never had/Well I can” are simple but affecting, and the regrets of ‘Dust’, Ocean using books as a metaphor for experience, are similarly honest:

So many pages I wrote, wish I could revise ’em

But there’s no erasing

And the best advice I got is ‘keep writing’

Although closer ‘Nature Feels’ is a bit superfluous and simple, and ‘American Wedding’ suffers from being a touch long and a bit obvious in places, it’s clear listening to nostalgia, ULTRA that Frank Ocean’s not going to stay as “another member of Odd Future” for long. His début is packed with ideas and invention, all humming with that distinctive OFWGKTA vibe of personal struggle and honest youthful experience.

Ocean’s record is relatable, fresh and well-produced: he’s already earmarked for stardom, and it’s not hard to see why.

Best tracks: ‘Strawberry Swing’, ‘There Will Be Tears’, ‘We All Try’.

Luke Grundy is a fervent assimilator of media living amid the bright lights of London, England. If he’s not watching films or listening to music, he’s probably asleep, eating or dead. An aspiring writer, journalist and musician, he is the creator of movie/music blog Odessa & Tucson and lives for epistemology.

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