In Retrospect: Frank Ocean’s Nostalgia


February 16 marks the tenth anniversary of the debut mixtape from Frank Ocean Nostalgia, Ultra. Ocean, whose real name is Christopher Breaux, released the mixtape promotion-less to his Tumblr account for fans to stream for free.

Such an introduction to the music industry is representative of Ocean’s independent and self-assured approach to his craft, a characteristic for which he has maintained his integrity. Perhaps the strongest reflection of Ocean’s character as an artist is the way in which he navigated the professional connections which led him to stardom.

Ocean earned his beginning in the music industry as a ghostwriter, with Kanye West and Beyoncé amongst the most popular artists to solicit his songwriting talent. His first attempt at releasing music of his own fell through due to an unsuccessful relationship with the record label Def Jam Recordings. Ocean joined Odd Future, an offbeat rap group who happily accommodated his unusual style and incorporated his sound seamlessly into their collective productions.

It seems that Ocean values his relationships within the music industry not for their usefulness as tools for professional advancement but rather for the genuine, mutual appreciation between artists. Ocean describes his music production as a medium of self-expression; he surrounds himself with only those who support his artistry and collaborates with musicians who contribute with a similar sense of personality.

As the beginning of a trailblazing career, Nostalgia, Ultra embodies Ocean’s individuality and establishes a starting point for many of the tropes that remain consistent throughout Ocean’s music. Compared to his subsequent releases, overall the mixtape has a less somber mood despite the heartfelt and sincere writing. Ocean touches on many profound topics; most tracks include a discussion of love, culminating in the line “I believe marriage isn’t between man and women, but between love and love” on the song ‘We All Try’. Ocean’s music, with Nostalgia, Ultra being no exception, has a relatable appeal as he draws from and articulates his own inner-most thoughts. His story-telling ability (highlighted in the track ‘Novacane’), complimented by interludes with an almost cinematic feel, allows the listener to imagine themselves in the music.

The mixtape is an unorthodox collection of tracks, including covers of songs from a range of genres. There was controversy surrounding the track ‘American Wedding’ on which he covers ‘Hotel California’ by the Eagles with his own lyrics.

Don Henley, drummer and vocalist for the band, publicly denounced the song as illegal, although the Eagles never pursued legal action. Ocean’s response was suitably brazen, saying that the Eagles’ response to the incident was “f awesome.” Perhaps such a stunt is viewed as distasteful in the music industry, however Ocean’s ability to turn a popular rock song from the 1970’s into his own alternative pop sound is an undeniable display of creativity. Nostalgia, Ultra is a good production that established a strong foundation for the music to come from Ocean. Underrated due to its absence from popular streaming platforms, each song is enjoyable in its own right. Collectively, the mixtape is heightened when played in order from start to finish as the contrast of songs combined with relaxing interludes provides a nice balance.

Despite the creativity and the contrast in Ocean’s music, there exists an inexplicable, almost cathartic, emotional attachment. However, this collection of songs lacks the same sense of identity which are most prominent in two of his studio albums Channel Orange and Blonde. One can draw many parallels between Ocean’s approach to music and his approach to life: unabashedly true to himself and what he values.

This is true in all Ocean’s music, but Nostalgia, Ultra feels like an experimental production. The musical equivalent of a child’s first time on the playground. He tries out the swings, scrapes his knee in the sandbox but, by the release of Channel Orange, it is clear that the monkey bars are his favourite. The significance of this mixtape in the development of avant-garde, indie music is not lost, but Nostalgia, Ultra simply does not invoke the consistent potency of emotion that has come to be expected from a Frank Ocean production.

image: via: flickr